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Odds are state won’t block welfare debit cards from being used in casinos

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POSTED August 21, 2010 1:52 a.m.
The latest installment in “Government Gone Wild” - the ongoing epic California reality disaster show produced in Sacramento - has a new twist.

Unemployment is still at 12.3 percent, families are under financial stress, the state has a $19 billion deficit, education is getting slashed, and welfare recipients are withdrawing cash benefits at casinos, card rooms, and other gaming establishments.

You read that right. Welfare issued debit cards are being used at ATM machines inside casinos.

Apologists for the practice are quick to point out that the withdrawals using welfare debit cards in casinos accounted for only $4.8 million of the $10.78 billion in ATM withdrawals during a 29-month period ending in May. That, they note, is only 0.1 percent of the overall money paid out.

In addition, all but $354,000 was taken from Indian casinos that the state has no jurisdiction over. The apologists also note that the state has no way of knowing whether those withdrawals are being used for gambling and drinking. They point out the casino ATMs may be the easiest accessed especially in rural areas by the welfare recipients using them.

There are two slight problems.

First, the state gambling commission was made aware of the problem of welfare debit cards being able to access ATMs at casinos and card rooms in early 2006. A year later the commission tabled action on the item. It wasn’t approved until 2009 and apparently hasn’t been enforced by requiring vendors to reconfigure ATMs in gambling establishments.

A gambling commission spokesperson said it can take years for the public to have sufficient time to comment on matters being considered as regulations. People receiving what is essentially a lifeline shouldn’t really be dictating how they receive the taxpayer financed handout. It would be akin to someone floating on the ocean having say over the type of helicopter used to rescue them. Besides, how long should it take government to respond to a simple issue?

The bigger issue here is whether there is fraud or, perhaps more appropriately, if welfare recipients are using their handouts effectively.

To folks up in Sacramento $4.8 million doesn’t sound like a lot of money. It is, however, enough money to pay for at least 20 teachers in the mid-salary range for three years including salary and benefits over the course of three years.

Then there are those who paint all welfare recipients as frauds. You know the drill. The old Cadillac welfare recipients charge. There is little doubt there is fraud and it should be eliminated as it is not fair to taxpayers or other welfare recipients for that matter.

In a sense, welfare apologists are right. The entire ruckus about welfare debit cards being used to withdraw funds at gambling establishment ATMs is penny ante.

There needs to be a major overhaul of how welfare assistance is provided.

Everyone has seen questionable instances over the years such as someone using Food Stamps to buy bread and milk and then turning around and paying cash for cigarettes or lottery tickets. Or they may see high-cost convenience food being purchased with a Food Stamps card.

And while it doesn’t harken back to the days you’d see someone shell down Food Stamps to buy TV dinners, it does bring up a couple of questions. Shouldn’t there be an actual government distribution center at least in larger communities to make sure the most cost effective and nutritious products are given to welfare recipients? It seems like it would be more effective and stretch the money further. You could also include basic toiletries at such a government store

Yes, there are special circumstances. Some recipients live in efficiency boarding rooms and may not have access to stoves or refrigerators for that matter. However, one must assume most recipients do and that they don’t have exactly a packed daily calendar so cooking food from scratch wouldn’t be such a tough proposition.

Also, rent - if that needs to be covered - should be paid directly to the landlord.

For every questionable Food Stamp purchases most of us can relate a story of someone who is effectively dealing with tight financial times by maximizing their food budgets.

Again this is not an indictment of welfare recipients in general. It is just that in these austere times government needs to make sure the wealth transfer payments coming from the pockets of struggling working and middle class families to help others is maximized.

But then again, don’t hold your breath. Stopping welfare debit cards from working at ATMs in gambling joints should have been an easy thing to accomplish.
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