A Missouri House bill would restrict the ability of welfare recipients to spend their benefits at casinos, liquor stores and strip clubs.
State law prohibits spending electronic card benefits at casinos. The new measure, sponsored by Rep. Chrissy Sommer, would toughen the law and bring the state into compliance with federal rules passed last year requiring states to adopt policies preventing welfare money from being spent on gambling, alcohol and adult entertainment.
Missouri's legislation would direct the Department of Social Services to create a mechanism to block the use of electronic benefit transfer cards (EBT) at casinos, liquor stores and strip clubs. But the measure would stop short of completely preventing such spending, because welfare recipients could still make cash withdrawals and use that money at those businesses.
"As long as they allow cash withdrawals, we are never going to be able to control this, but that is just how the federal program works," said Sommer, R-St. Charles.
Rebecca Woelfel, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services, which oversees the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, said in an email that the department is currently able to track the location and amount of a purchase using an EBT card, but can't discern what was bought.
Sommer's legislation would cause people to lose welfare benefits for three years if they're found guilty of making cash withdrawals at casinos.
Missouri has until 2014 to adopt policies limiting the use of welfare benefits at those locations or risk losing 5 percent of its federal funding for the program, which this year is budgeted for $128 million.
A U.S. Government Accountability Office report lists six states that have already adopted policies that restrict how EBT cards are used.
In California, thousands of ATMs inside or near casinos and liquor stores have had electronic benefit transfer access disabled, although it's not illegal to spend cash assistance at such locations. Pennsylvania disabled EBT access at ATMs in its state-run liquor stores, and it's illegal to use benefits to buy alcohol.
But a social welfare advocate said she opposes measures to limit cash withdrawals for welfare recipients, because the restrictions ignore reality. For instance, someone with an EBT card who lives next to a store that sells liquor and food could theoretically be barred from using the EBT card to buy food or other non-liquor items, said Jeanette Mott Oxford, a former Democratic representative from St. Louis who now is executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare.
"Not allowing a person to withdraw cash would not just hinder a person's ability to spend their benefits, it would make it almost impossible to survive," she said.
Sommer sponsored similar legislation last year, but the bill died. This year's measure has not yet been sent to a House committee.
In November, Republican state Auditor Tom Schweich announced an audit of the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program amid reports detailing welfare benefit spending at Missouri casinos.