Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

February 17, 2014

Welfare 'Integrity' needed

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Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — There’s little more galling to the average law-abiding, self-sufficient citizen than welfare fraud.

And would there be anything more resented than a person who accepts public assistance and uses it for beer, cigarettes or lottery tickets?

Not that the average person resents public assistance for deserving people. America is a compassionate country; New York a compassionate state.

But when that public assistance is used for purposes other than providing basic needs of food, clothing and housing for a needy person or family, the compassion turns to outrage.

So it may come as a shock to many that that very kind of abuse has happened all over the state — to the extent that a bill is now in the State Legislature to put an end to such shenanigans.

Sen. Tom Libous sponsored the Public Assistance Integrity Act, passed recently by the Senate, to prohibit the use of public-assistance funds to buy alcohol, tobacco or lottery tickets or to be used at liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs.

It’s hard to believe that this legislation is needed — and that it hadn’t already been enacted.

When people sign up for welfare, they are issued an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card, which is like a cash card at any ATM or a debit card at a store.

The card accesses two accounts: food stamps (now called SNAP) and cash assistance. SNAP is very closely regulated, but cash assistance is not.

With the enactment of this law, EBT cards will not be able to be used at liquor stores, strip clubs or casinos. And they will not be redeemable in stores for alcohol or cigarettes.

The Senate has passed similar legislation before, but it has not survived the Assembly. This year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo included part of the Senate bill in his state budget — the part that prohibits use of EBT cards at casinos, liquor stores and strip clubs.

But the rest of it must become part of state law, as well, to keep beer and cigarettes from being purchased with public-assistance funds.

This year, it is crucial that the Assembly follow through on this important piece of legislation. This safeguard against abuse of the public’s money must not fall victim to any kind of political dealings.

Deserving public-assistance recipients are hurt, too, by people who misuse the system.

If this bill were to go to public referendum, the vote in favor would surely be as close to unanimous as it’s possible to get. So responsible elected representatives can’t overlook it or, worse yet, vote against it.

New Yorkers are historically generous when looking out for the needs of their family, friends and neighbors. But they most certainly do not deserve to be taken advantage of anymore.

-- The Press-Republican, Plattsburgh