AUGUSTA, Maine — Instead of a thousand words, the state and Gov. Paul LePage are hoping photos on welfare benefit cards are worth many thousands of taxpayer dollars, by reducing fraud and aiding police efforts to crack down on the black market value for the cards.
LePage, who has made combating welfare fraud a signature issue of his administration and his re-election campaign, is championing photo IDs as a way to bring accountability to Maine’s welfare system.
But with strict federal rules on how cardholders should be treated, and a lack of success in states where it’s been tried, it’s unclear how — or even if — photo IDs will do that.
Dale Denno led the Office of Family Independence, the state agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that administers electronic benefit transfer cards, for two years until December. He called the photo ID plan “political catnip.”
“It sounds like that would stop fraud. It’s intuitive that it could. But I think the reality is different,” he said. “It’s tempting to throw ideas out there that sound like they might be good, but looking at it from a business perspective, I don’t see a compelling reason for the photo IDs.”
Federal law and program integrity
Federal law dictates that EBT cardholders cannot be treated any differently than other customers. So unless stores that accept EBT cards adopt a policy of checking the identity of every customer using a debit or credit card, verifying the identity of the EBT cardholder cannot be legally attempted.
But that likely wouldn’t matter: Cardholders’ household members and some others, such as home health care workers, must be allowed to use the card on their behalf, and that’s not changing under Maine’s photo ID plan. The person whose picture is on the card won’t be the only one allowed to use it.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP benefits, has told Maine DHHS it is unsure the agency can implement a photo requirement without unnecessarily burdening welfare recipients or violating their rights, and it has urged the state to hold off on its plan until its concerns are addressed.
LePage and DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew have opted to move ahead without the federal government’s blessing. A pilot program for putting photos is underway in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, and Mayhew said the state will begin requiring photos on most EBT cards some time this summer. The program’s startup cost tops $160,000 and is expected to cost roughly $41,000 after that.
There are about 224,000 EBT cards in the state. Nearly all carry SNAP benefits, while about 7,600 also hold Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash.
Last year, the attorney general successfully prosecuted 14 cases of EBT-related fraud, involving more than $218,000 in misused or stolen funds from the program, formerly known as food stamps, and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Just three of those cases involved an individual using a card they weren’t authorized to use. The rest involved fraud in the application process — applicants lying about being married or about children living with them or about income. By lying, the applicants made themselves appear eligible for more benefits than deserved.
LePage and his allies have said that even if the vast majority of cardholders are using benefits correctly, the state should do everything within its power to curb what abuse may exist. Denno said he agreed that energy should be put toward preventing fraud, but he said photos on EBT cards wasn’t the answer.
“The term that we used is ‘program integrity.’ That’s all the things you do to make sure the right people are getting the right benefits. I don’t, personally, see this — in terms of the dollars spent versus the benefits received — having any specific impact on program integrity,” he said.
Denno said he thought improvements to program integrity should focus on vigilance at the front-end of the welfare application process to avoid awarding benefits to people who don’t deserve them to begin with — and enough enforcement to measures to catch the handful of fraudsters that slip through the cracks.
That’s the same conclusion come to by several other states who have considered a photo requirement for their own EBT programs.
Federal protections make photo ID “costly, useless”
States including Tennessee, Missouri and Pennsylvania have either opted not to require photo ID on EBT cards after study or ended the photo requirement after not realizing expected savings.
Missouri ended its program in 2001 after declaring the requirement “costly” and “useless.”
“State officials expected the cards to help deter fraud, but federal regulations allow any family member to use the card, which renders the photographs useless for fraud or identification,” said then-state auditor Claire McCaskill, who is a Democratic U.S. senator.
“Retailers are trained to disregard the photo because transactions are valid as long as a person has the card and the PIN,” McCaskill said. “Additionally, we have observed that many retailer point-of-sale card terminals are positioned so as to prevent retailer personnel from being able to see the card picture when the client swipes the card and enters the PIN.”
Shelley Doak, executive director of the Maine Grocers Association — which represents Hannaford, Shaw’s and hundreds of independent grocery stores — said that if a customer has the EBT card and the PIN, then the person can use the card.
“It’s a secure transaction because the holder of the card has that PIN number,” she said. “There’s no verification that takes place now, and there’s no change going forward for the retailers, relative to the state’s shifting from the current EBT card to a photo ID card.”
EBT users and their rights
LePage and other supporters of the photo ID requirement say it’s partially a response to the number of EBT cards turning up in drug busts throughout the state. Roy McKinney, head of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, has said dealers and addicts are using the cards as currency in drug deals, and that the number of EBT cards recovered at drug scenes doubled from 2012 to 2013.
When asked how the photo ID plan would prevent cards from being sold or traded — along with the all-important PIN — LePage’s communications director, Peter Steele, said the photos would “add one more layer of accountability.”
“Those who trade EBT cards for cash or drugs would be less likely to do so if their photo is on the card,” he said. “Likewise, those who accept EBT cards as currency or to buy drugs would be less likely to risk getting caught with them. Names and numbers are on cards now, but photos make them immediately identifiable. It would serve as a deterrent for those who would use their EBT benefits for illegal or criminal activity. It would make them think twice.”
That idea seems to be predicated on EBT cardholders not understanding that the photo cannot be checked in order to allow or deny a purchase or ATM withdrawal.
David Sorensen, spokesman for the House Republican Caucus, put it bluntly: “The users don’t know about USDA regulations. Don’t you think somebody would be less likely to trade or accept an EBT card in exchange for cocaine if it had somebody else’s picture on it?” he said. “It’s about changing the culture.”
Some are asking questions about whether or not the state is adequately educating recipients about their rights.
A notice sent to recipients in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties makes no mention of the fact that household members are still allowed to use the cards, or the fact that shops can’t ask to verify an EBT card unless they do the same for all credit and debit cardholders. It tells them only that “stores must follow the rules outlined in their agreement with the USDA,” while saying nothing about what those rules are.
Administration officials have been equally vague with the media: In a recent interview, Bethany Hamm, the director of the Office of Family Independence, would not give the BDN a direct answer to whether stores will be allowed to check the photo before approving a sale.
“We don’t have oversight of the retailers, so the department is very clear in its notification that they need to go back to their agreement [with the USDA] and make sure they’re still in agreement,” she said.
Chris Hastedt, public policy director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, said she didn’t think the state had done enough to ensure cardholders or retailers understood that the photos could not be used to authorize an EBT transaction.
“People are going to assume that if there’s a photo on there, [retailers] are supposed to do something,” she said. “Whether or not that was intentional, I can’t say. But whether or not it was intentional, it will have the effect of scaring people, confusing people and undermining the very federal protections meant to protect them.”
Hastedt worried that could mean that some EBT users would be scared away from allowing family members to use their cards — legally — because of the vagaries in state communications.
“Their failure to put out the correct, accurate, full information is going to have that effect,” she said.
Contrast that with the situation in Massachusetts, which also recently began requiring photos on EBT cards. A notice posted on that state’s EBT website makes it clear that retailers should not ask to inspect anyone’s EBT card.
Photo ID and law enforcement
Detective Sgt. Steve Webster of the South Portland Police Department said he believed the photos would be a benefit for police, even if they won’t change anything at the checkout line.
“It’s a small thing we can do as a state to minimize fraud and abuse,” he said. “Is it going to solve all the problems? No. Absolutely not. But it can help.”
Webster said criminals often don’t carry photo identification. If someone is found to be carrying a photoless EBT card and no other form of identification, it can be difficult for police to know whether the card belongs to the suspect or not, he said.
Even though someone could be caught in possession of someone else’s card without having done anything wrong, the addition of a photo would help, he said, because it would give police a place to start or a reason to ask questions.
“It gives them the starting point to look into it, to see why they have it, if they’re authorized,” he said. “It will hopefully minimize some of the abuse, give people something to think about. And it will give the investigators more evidence.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.