Everybody Say Cheese – Update on Photo ID’s on EBT Cards

Update, December 23: The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the food stamp program, last week stepped in to the controversy surrounding EBT card Photo ID’s, suggesting that the state’s welfare department had acted too hastily in putting a program into place:

…the sheer volume of households potentially without access to their benefits suggests that DTA has pursued a rushed implementation of the [Photo ID] requirement without taking care to put adequate safeguards in pace for eligible, participating households.

The feds went on to ask the state to stop the Photo ID program temporarily in order to fix the numerous problems that are causing eligible households to have their benefits suspended. (Click on link to read their letter to the state.)

So far, the state is saying no to that request, a rather surprising response for a state to be giving the federal government, which pays for the food stamp benefits that half a million residents of Massachusetts receive (not to mention a rather surprising response for the Patrick administration to be giving to the Obama administration).

Only six months ago, Governor Patrick’s position on the value of Photo ID cards included a bit of skepticism: in agreeing to the new requirement, he also suggested that its utility be reviewed to make sure that it was preventing more fraud than it was costing. However, to judge by his administration’s eagerness to put the program in place ahead of schedule and its refusal last week to halt the program even temporarily, that skepticism has given way to the politically expedient position that the prevention of fraud is a loftier goal than the prevention of hunger. As the Governor’s welfare commissioner has put it, “I think anything that makes people feel like we are doing all we can to make sure that only people who are eligible for benefits are getting them, we are open to do.” Anything, apparently, even if it involves the deprivation of food to needy and eligible families. At Christmas.

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[Original Post – December 17, 2013]

Remember this past summer when the Legislature decided to make the state’s welfare agency issue new EBT cards to people getting SNAP assistance (aka food stamps)? Cards with photo ID’s on them? Cards that would ward off fraud?

Well, Project EBT Photo ID is underway, and we’ve got an update. Apparently the rollout has run into problems. Some of the people getting food stamps do not have their photo on file already at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, so they have to come in to have their pictures taken. Then, during picture-taking time, there was a sewage backup at the Framingham welfare office, forcing that building to close. And then the state’s EBT card vendor, the Xerox Corporation, mistakenly “deactivated” hundreds of cards last week, leaving those card holders (on the weekend before a snowstorm) with carts full of groceries but no way to get them out of the store.

According to State Rep. Shaunna O’Connell, who is the idea’s head cheerleader, a much bigger problem is that the people who run the stores where EBT cards are used pretty much in the dark about the entire Photo ID program. “Nobody understands the process,” she complains.

And the reason that nobody understands the process is that the process is based on a false premise. The store owners are under the entirely understandable but entirely incorrect assumption that the person using the EBT card must be the same person whose picture appears on the card. But that’s not the way the program works. This is not Voter ID (although it seems likely that’s where the idea came from). Food stamp benefits are calculated based on the income and expenses of all the members of a household, and so all the members of the household are allowed to use the card. That’s the federal law that governs this federally-funded program. Putting a photo of the primary food stamp recipient on the card wrongly implies that no one else is permitted to use the card, and it does nothing to deter fraud. That’s what the PIN is for, just like on your bank debit card. (If a photo deterred fraud, don’t you think that the banks would have insisted that one be put there?)

Although requiring a photo ID does not stop fraud, it does deter the efficient distribution of food stamps to needy and eligible people, and it costs the state a lot of money besides. Maybe that’s the reason that no other state in the country requires photo ID’s and why Mitt Romney (Mr. Cost/Benefit Analysis himself) abandoned the idea when he was our Governor.

If you’re thinking about new year’s resolutions, maybe consider a request to your lawmakers to stop spending the state’s money making it harder for those of our residents who have limited resources to feed themselves. And happy holidays.

2 thoughts on “Everybody Say Cheese – Update on Photo ID’s on EBT Cards

  1. Very informative post. Thanks! Perhaps you want to suggest that New Year’s resolution here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1WqmAE9ty3LRcHXxsq9h1Imb5UfU5IjcDJPT744q2iq4/viewform?utm_source=ML+13%2F12%2F17&utm_campaign=20131216ML&utm_medium=email

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    Kevin B. Gilnack
    Public Policy & Communications Associate | Providers’ Council
    Project Manager | The Caring Force
    617.428.3637 ext. 124 (w) | 617.506.9670 (c)
    The Caring Force on Facebook | @MassCouncil | @TheCaringForce | @kgilnack | LinkedIn

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