Welfare loopholes slowly close

Posted July 10, 2010, at 1:56 a.m.

There are many times when faith and trust can be difficult concepts to grasp, particularly when it comes to government operations — of any sort — on any level.

Last week, however, I latched onto a smidgen of each; faith and trust and a dash of hope thrown in for good measure.

You probably don’t recall, but last October I wrote a column about a woman who used her government food card to purchase five cases of bottled water at a local grocery store.

A perfectly legitimate purchase, it would seem.

A short time later, a grocery store employee happened to wander out to the parking lot to see the woman sitting nearby, methodically dumping out the bottles’ contents onto the parking lot.

She walked back into the store vestibule and returned all 120 bottles and went back to the cashier and purchased a pack of cigarettes with the refund money.

Cigarettes, like liquor, are of course not approved food-voucher purchases.

Grocery store employees are not naive as to the lengths that people will go in order to use their food voucher benefits for things other than food.

For decades, grocery store employees have watched such shenanigans.

Some recipients sell their food cards to others at half the price they are worth in order to buy things other than food to feed their families.

Yet still, my friend who is a veteran in the grocery store business is offended and frustrated at a system so fraught with loopholes that it allows for such occurrences.

And they happen daily. Ask anyone who works in a grocery store.

Just a few months after he watched the woman dump out the water, the same friend watched a gentleman use his food voucher card to purchase $75 worth of vanilla extract. No, the customer was not a baker. While it may not be a fine wine, with 35 percent alcohol, a good bottle of vanilla can substitute for hooch when times are tough.

The comments in response to my column clearly echoed the frustration felt by all taxpayers to such abuses of a government-funded program designed to help those in need.

Come to find out, the staff at Bangor’s Health and Community Services were among the most frustrated by the woman and the bottled water story.

Those city employees, whose job it is to help people fill out the paperwork for eligibility for city General Assistance, are more aware than anyone else as to the very real need that some folks have for such assistance.

They are perhaps the most offended of us all when stories break about flagrant abuse of that very system.

So when Shawn Yardley, the boss guy over there at Bangor Health and Community Services, walked into his office the day after the column ran about the water lady and her cigarettes, he was met with a bunch of ticked-off city employees hellbent on plugging up that loophole.

And here’s what got me a little excited.

They did it.

I’m not kidding you. This small group of city employees, armed only with the drive not to let such blatant abuses continue, put their heads together and simply came up with a solution.

Here’s their solution.

People receiving General Assistance food vouchers from the city of Bangor can purchase bottled water, but they must pay for the deposit with cash upfront. If they buy a six-pack of bottled water, they need to put up the 30 cents in cash for the deposit. It does not come out of the voucher.

Simple.

Ingenious.

That problem was fixed just like that.

I called the woman in charge of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly the food stamp program) for Maine.

I told of the simple yet so effective solution that Yardley’s staff had come up with on the local level.

“Any chance of that happening with the federal program?” I asked.

“We follow the federal guidelines,” she said.

And for now those guidelines allow for bottle deposits to be paid for by the federal food voucher program.

“But if there is an abuse of that program people can report it,” she said.

OK.

I’m sure such a change could not be made on the federal level without literally an act of Congress, including all of its public hearings and debates.

But so be it. Right here in Bangor, Yardley’s crew was ticked off. They saw the hole and they filled it and good for them.

And good for me because as a Bangor taxpayer and a former frustrated grocery store employee, that gave me a little faith and a little trust at least at that level of government.

E-mail Renee at reneeordway@gmail.com and listen to her and co-host Dan Frazell from 7 to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday on the radio at 103.1 The Pulse.

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