Welfare fraud investigations perpetuate fraudulent stereotypes

Negative stereotypes of low-income folks are perpetuated by lopsided media investigations, which feed into the narrative of conservative lawmakers intent on destroying the social safety net. Yet most voters think that poor children deserve to eat, live indoors and go to a doctor when they are sick. Monica Peabody, POWER (Parents Organizing for Welfare and Economic Rights) Board member

Last February, Congress passed legislation that bans the use of TANF funds at casinos, strip clubs, and liquor stores. TANF, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, is a federal block grant program that provides cash assistance to low-income families with children. This cash assistance is made accessible to recipients through the use of Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards. The bill sponsor, Louisiana Republican Representative, Charles Boustany, claims that illicit use of TANF funds is a nationally rampant problem. For proof he probably looked to sources like an early 2011 fraud investigation done by Seattle’s King 5 television, which revealed that 13,000 TANF recipients made 20,465 separate withdrawals in state casinos.

This was reminiscent of a scandal in California, where the Los Angeles Times reported that EBT card users pulled $4.8 million out of casino ATM’s between the beginning of 2007 and middle of 2010. What these reports failed to take into account is how often casino’s are located in rural areas with limited ATM availability. Half the transactions in California took place in rural areas, and based on the locations of Washington’s casinos it’s reasonable to assume these statistics are comparable.

Troy Huston, deputy director of DSHS (Department of Social and Health Services), was asked by King 5 News if he thought the money being withdrawn in Washington casinos was being used for gambling. Mr. Huston acknowledged that, “I don’t know if someone who is withdrawing money at a casino is actually using it to gamble . . . I don’t have enough information to make that determination.”

Despite this lack of information, the “forbidden” businesses mentioned above are now required to alter their ATM’s and point of sale machines so they cannot accept EBT cards, an expense they are covering out of pocket. Washington’s Office of Fraud and Accountability has utilized US Postal Service data to create a tracking system for matching TANF recipient’s cards to transaction records they are accessing from ATMs at “forbidden locations”.

The Office of Fraud and Accountability has thirty employees; six new full-time positions were created in March 2011 to reduce fraud and misuse of benefits through EBT cards. A figure has not been released for the cost of this investigation, but it’s safe to assume it surpasses the $6,600 TANF recipients withdrew from ATM’s at ‘adult entertainment venues’ and casinos last year.

In 2012 Washington State had an average of 54,427 people receiving TANF benefits per month. Over a seven-month period last year 63 Washingtonians used their EBT cards at ATM’s located in casinos, liquor stores, tattoo parlors, and strip clubs. That is less than .002% of Washington State EBT card users. Of these 63, seven are “repeat offenders.” How is this news?

Tracking EBT card use has also become a pastime for the conservative media. In January Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post revealed that welfare recipients made dozens of ATM withdrawals at a handful of porn and liquor stores across New York City during an 18-month span. Kansaswatchdog.org tracked Kansas TANF recipients’ spending habits over a 3-month period last year by accessing ATM records at casinos, strip clubs and the like. They found that Kansas welfare recipients withdrew $43,000 at ‘questionable locations’, the largest two being “smoke shops and cigarette retailers”, a common ATM location where $19,302.42 was accessed. Cash advance and payday loan places, which are a debt trap that specifically targets low-income folks, came in second with $8,578.10. Not to be outdone, Florida’s NBC2, with the help of Virginia-based software firm FMS, Inc., recently sorted through 1.3 million EBT ATM transactions, totaling $201.8 million dollars, to find that between 2009 and 2011 $190,733 had been spent in bars, liquor stores, strip clubs, casinos, and bowling alleys. That is less than one percent of the total money they monitored and almost certainly less than the cost of the investigation.

The sentiment behind these investigations was perfectly summarized, albeit unintentionally, by Michael Tanner of the Cano Institute. When interviewed about EBT use at sex shops in the New York Post Article he stated, “I have nothing against strip clubs, but that’s not what benefits are for. I don’t blame [recipients]. If you are poor, it’s a crummy life and you want to have a drink or see a naked woman. I blame the people who are in charge of this.” Mr. Tanner’s statement paints low-income folks as drunks with crummy lives who want to party on the taxpayer dime. They don’t know any better, so it’s up to those in power to put a stop to their debauchery. The entire purpose of reports like these seems to be advocating for the prejudices of Mr. Tanner’s lot. This narrative is the latest line of attack in a smear campaign that stretches back even further than the phrase ‘welfare queen’. Once these stereotypes are planted in the public consciousness it becomes that much easier for conservative lawmakers to swoop in with discriminatory legislation.

For a case study in this phenomenon we need look no further than Florida’s mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients. Despite costing Florida a deficit of $45,780 and proving the percentage of welfare recipients using illegal substances was lower than the general population, Kansas decided just last month to begin a similar drug testing policy for its welfare applicants. In these instances, stereotypes speak louder than statistics. Similarly, tracking TANF recipients ATM habits is absurdly wasteful, proving nothing except how little money is being withdrawn at locations that offend conservative sensibilities. Media reports have been playing down the truth and playing up shock value, which perpetuates pre-established negative stereotypes, attracting viewers like moths to a light. As these negative stereotypes become further engrained, logic falls by the wayside. The public is too busy buying into an absurd fantasy about welfare recipients being a bunch of drunken degenerates gambling away other people’s money to care about how their tax dollar is being wasted in pursuit of this fantasy. This portrayal pacifies the masses as conservative lawmakers smash the social safety net to smithereens. Since 1996, due to TANF time limits and onerous requirements, the number of people receiving cash assistance has fallen by two thirds, though poverty has increased. In 2009 TANF assisted 28 families for every 100 in poverty, compared to 75 out of 100 in 1996. All this has occurred during the worst economic crisis in a generation, when the need for social services is greater than it has been in decades. In order to address this growing economic inequality we must first debunk the stereotypes about low-income individuals that are fueling this atrocity.

Jordan Beaudry has a pen in his pocket and a passion for social justice.