The Maine Department of Health and Human Services left a number of questions unanswered when it launched a pilot project in the Bangor region to place recipient photos on electronic benefit transfer cards.
Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew moved ahead with the pilot despite a warning from the federal Food and Nutrition Service to hold off. Even as the pilot project has begun, the concerns that remain point to why Gov. Paul LePage’s initiative to place photos on EBT cards just doesn’t compute.
Maine DHHS ultimately plans to require photo IDs on the EBT cards of all food stamp and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families beneficiaries except those who are disabled, age 60 and older, 18 and younger, or a victim of domestic violence “with verification,” according to DHHS.
In correspondence with federal officials prior to the pilot project launch, Maine DHHS neglected to address some key points. For example, the department didn’t outline how a domestic violence victim can verify her status as such. To the point of requiring an EBT card photo, the department didn’t outline the consequences for those food stamp and TANF recipients who don’t comply.
The federal law that governs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and TANF designates only certain conditions under which someone who is otherwise eligible can be denied assistance, and failure to comply with a photo ID requirement is not one of them. That means the LePage administration can’t enforce its EBT card photo requirement by withholding benefits, calling into question the logic behind the entire requirement.
Another lapse in logic behind the requirement lies in the very nature of EBT cards. Under federal law, anyone in the household — not just the head of household whose photo is on the card — is allowed to use the card, as well as anyone else designated by the head of household. Federal law also prohibits retailers from treating EBT cards any differently from the debit and credit cards used by other customers. So a retailer can’t ask to inspect an EBT card unless it’s the business’ policy to also inspect credit and debit cards.
Basically, the photo on the EBT card might or might not match up with the person actually purchasing groceries. But the presence of a photo ID on a card will invite retailers to scrutinize the photo ID and make sure it matches up. In many cases, it won’t, which could raise suspicion among retailers who aren’t fully informed about the photo requirement and the conditions surrounding it.
In Massachusetts — the only state that requires photos on EBT cards — reports of these inspection violations have been more common at small retailers that accept EBT cards than at large grocery stores, according to advocates for EBT cardholders.
In the Bay State, which started implementing its requirement at the end of 2013, the photo requirement doesn’t even apply to about half of the state’s EBT cards. More than 45 percent of the state’s households that receive food stamp benefits have members who are elderly or disabled.
Massachusetts estimates it will spend $5 million-$7 million to fully implement its photo requirement for EBT cards and $4.4 million annually on an ongoing basis. Yet the state has already found the photo requirement to be a wasteful use of public resources meant to help low-income people escape poverty.
In 2004, Republican Gov. Mitt Romney’s administration terminated a previous EBT photo requirement that took effect in the late 1990s after determining it resulted in no savings for taxpayers, carried high administrative costs and failed as a fraud deterrent. In Missouri, a state audit came to the same conclusion in 2001, and that state has nixed its photo rule.
For LePage, who supposedly wants to safeguard taxpayer resources, the fact that photos on EBT cards have proven wasteful apparently doesn’t matter. But if his administration moves forward with the photo requirement, there’s little doubt about what future cost-benefit analyses will find about a foolhardy attempt to control a fraud problem that barely exists and that’s far from what should be the top concern of state officials.