Inspired by media reports that welfare recipients are spending their benefits out of state, and even at places like casinos, state Auditor Tom Schweich plans to investigate.
Schweich said his concern is that programs are being used inappropriately, and his audit is an attempt to safeguard taxpayer dollars.
Critics contend that the notion of any widespread abuse is a myth. They worry that Schweich's efforts will further stigmatize those who are suffering hard times
The first-term Republican announced last week that he planned to audit the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) process, which is used to access food stamps.
The audit is a direct response to recent reports by KMOV-TV in St. Louis and KCTV in Kansas City that documented instances of those funds being spent in all 50 states, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands, said Spence Jackson, a spokesman for the auditor's office.
The reports also include examples of the funds being accessed at ATMs in places like casinos and liquor stores.
"These programs were created to help families and individuals struggling with economic difficulties, not to bolster a recipient's nightlife or pay for expensive vacations," Schweich said in a statement.
Welfare recipients are issued benefits through an EBT card, which can be used like a debit card to buy things or to withdraw cash from ATMs. Missouri households participating in the TANF program receive an average monthly cash grant of $239.
While food stamp benefits can be spent only on food, there are few restrictions on cash assistance provided through TANF.
Jeanette Mott Oxford, a former Democratic lawmaker who serves as executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, said she expected Schweich's audit to confirm that only a tiny fraction of money spent on social welfare programs is being misspent.
Elizabeth Lower-Basch, policy coordinator and senior policy analyst with the nonpartisan Center for Law and Social Policy, said even though some of these transactions may seem inappropriate at first glance, closer inspection typically reveals no wrongdoing.
"The liquor store in your neighborhood may have a lower ATM fee than any other location," she said. "A parent may withdraw funds to pay rent from an ATM located in a liquor store simply because it is going to cost them less than going someplace else."
For the past two years, legislation has been introduced in the Missouri House that would ban TANF benefits from being spent out of state. But critics argue that those living in poverty aren't using the benefits to fund vacations to exotic locales.
"People have the right and, in many instances, the need to travel," she said. "Relatives live in other states, and a poor person shouldn't be denied the ability to visit or attend a funeral. And while you're there, you have the right to eat."
Over three months last year, a little more than $1 million in TANF benefits distributed by Missouri was spent out of state -- roughly 3 percent. Of that amount, two-thirds was spent in states bordering Missouri, and more than half was spent in either Kansas or Illinois.
Jackson, the auditor's spokesman, said even if the amount being misspent turns out to be small, the state's taxpayers deserve to know. And if there is anything that could prevent it, Jackson said the auditor was hopeful that his investigation would help that along.
"Our office doesn't have enforcement authority, but we can recommend good changes," he said.
The audit is expected to begin next spring.