The EBT crackdown and the nanny state

Convenience store clerk Jackie Whiton became a champion against welfare waste by refusing to sell cigarettes to a customer using his state Electronic Benefits Transfer card. This united even House Speaker Bill O'Brien and the Monitor editorial board in calling for tighter restriction on EBTs.

The problem with such reforms is that it leads to nanny-state bureaucracy trying to micromanage the lives of low-income families.

Since the 1990s, New Hampshire has been replacing the paper checks sent to welfare recipients with EBTs. These cards work much like your debit card, and can be reloaded by several state and federal welfare programs. Taking the paper out of the system saves the state a lot of money and removes some of the social stigma that came from cashing in food stamps. Not everyone agrees that this last feature is a good idea.

The state Department of Health and Human Services Division of Family Assistance uses EBT cards for food stamps, as well as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and Aid to the Temporarily and Permanently Disabled.

Division Director Terry Smith says the U.S. Department of Agriculture has placed restrictions on what may or may not be purchased with food stamps, and retailers have to train employees to handle customers buying ineligible items, whether they are cigarettes or paper towels.

Smith says clients can't withdraw food stamp benefits as cash, but that other programs on EBT cards have no more restrictions than putting a check in the bank.

Congress has mandated that states block EBT cards at casinos, liquor stores, and strip clubs by 2014. But even then, there would be nothing preventing a welfare recipient from taking Temporary Assistance to Needy Families funds out from an ATM, and walking across the street for a whiskey and a lap-dance.

TANF benefits are capped at 60 months, with limited hardship exemptions. The Obama administration last week moved to waive these restrictions, both in violation of the law and the best interests of those receiving assistance.

If we want our welfare programs to promote self-sufficiency rather than dependency, welfare benefits must be both modest and temporary. They need not be overly prescriptive.

We can't hope to lift people out of poverty by micromanaging their day-to-day purchases. If we're going to send cash assistance to low-income families, we have to accept that they will spend some of that money in ways that many of us will find wasteful.

People on welfare will make bad decisions with money, not because they are on welfare, but because they are people.

Cracking down on EBT use would require the same costly and inefficient bureaucracy that conservatives oppose and liberals deny exists under Obamacare.

OK, cigarettes and booze are out. Could you use an EBT card to take your wife out to dinner once a month? Could she get the lobster and a cocktail, or just the chicken? Is dessert covered? Is O Steak and Seafood too expensive? Is McDonald's too unhealthy?

Once we let government exert this kind of control, we quickly cede any limits on state intrusion.

We certainly could force those asking for help to live up to our arbitrary standards. As we debate the best way to help out those most in need, we should resist the paternalistic urge to improve their lives with our wisdom. The only people that the nanny state makes more prosperous are the new bureaucrats it employs.


Grant Bosse is lead investigator for the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy.

Categories: Opinion