State Senator Arthur Orr, R- District 3, has pre-filed a bill that would stop people from using their welfare benefits to purchase cigarettes or alcohol, and would also prevent them from making cash withdrawals at ATMs inside strip clubs and casinos.
Food Stamps are loaded onto an Electronic Benefits card and items like alcohol and tobacco are flagged, meaning the person is not allowed to purchase the item. But Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or what is commonly referred to as welfare benefits, is essentially cash. TANF benefits are given to people who have children. The benefits are loaded onto an EBT card and the money can be withdrawn at ATMs but the problem, lawmakers say, is that people are sometimes withdrawing the cash inside strip clubs or casinos or even at establishments that offer psychic services.
The federal government has mandated that if states want to regulate the benefits that decision must be made by 2014. Senator Orr pre-filed Senate Bill 7 and it was recently debated in committee.
"There was a study done in the state of Washington and in LA County in 2010-2011 that showed that there were millions of dollars being spent on ATMs in casinos," he said. "This would allow us to electronically disable the ATMs and things like that in proximity of strip clubs and casinos and things like that," explained Orr.
The legislation would also fine people who try to misuse the cards as well as merchants who let customers purchase things like cigarettes.
Not all legislators are onboard. As the men discussed examples of how people misuse the cards Senator Bobby Singleton became frustrated.
"Obviously none of you know what its like to be poor. Just to hear the laughter around the table when people have to survive everyday--maybe that's the only way they could have gotten some cash money to be able to buy some things that food stamps won't allow them to be able to purchase," he said to the room. "You want to take a poor person from being allowed to buy a pack of cigarettes and then you want to punish them."
Singleton told the group that he would leave the rest of his comments for the Senate floor when the bill is presented. Ric Dowell receives state benefits but he says he does not think they should be used to purchase things like alcohol and tobacco or lap dances and chips at a casino.
"No, no, no, nothing like that. I just think we should be able to purchase toothpaste and toilet paper," he said.
Cynthia White is putting herself through college and also receives state benefits. She says limitations just make it harder on people who are trying to better their situations and she says they should be able to spend the money on what they want.
"If it helps keep them sane, give them their cigarettes."