Bans on food stamps for convicted drug users and using welfare debit cards at strip clubs moving in the Houseby Dara Kam | February 21st, 2012
Felons convicted of drug possession won’t be able to get food stamps or emergency cash for poor families unless they successfully complete state-approved substance abuse treatment programs and recipients of the cash aid won’t be able to use debit cards at strip joints or gambling locales under two bills approved by a Florida House committee Tuesday morning.
Barring drug abusing convicted felons is already part of federal law restricting who can get food stamps. But the federal government allows states to opt out of the prohibition, which Florida did more than two decades ago.
Both measures are aimed at ensuring that the money going to needy families benefits children, proponents say.
But Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, objected that the bill was “mean-spirited.”
“This bill presumes all poor people have a problem and use dollars in an inappropriate ways, especially those who have been convicted of a drug crime,” said Pafford.
Making sure felons who were convicted of drug possession complete treatment is a good thing, argued Rep. Dennis Baxley, a former state director of the Christian Coalition said at the House Human Services Committee today before the 12-6 vote along party lines in favor of the measure (HB 813). A Senate committee is expected to vote on the measure tomorrow.
“It’s about government not being a codependent,” Baxley, R-Ocala, said, adding that 80 percent of crimes are related to drug abuse. “Anything we can do to help people identify and move away from that is a benefit.”
Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins said the changes would bring Florida into line with federal law and mirror what many other states are now doing.
“I’m not sure why the state of Florida passed that law that allowed those individuals to receive food stamps. I guess that was just a different time,” Wilkins said. “I didn’t see any logical reason myself for why Florida has carved that out in today’s time.”
Those who are ineligible for the benefits because of their felony convictions could name someone else to receive the aid on behalf of the children in the family who would otherwise lose out on the food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But some critics say the requirement that felons complete state-approved drug treatment could be problematic because many of the approved facilities have wait lists and they cost money. Popular recovery programs Alocholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, which are free, would not fulfill the requirements.
A separate, more controversial measure would restrict where those who receive TANF can use state-issued EBT cards. The move was prompted by a television report that found that some recipients of the cash aid – the poorest of the poor, as some Department of Children and Families officials call them – have used the cards at liquor stores, strip clubs and gambling joints. The measure (HB 1401) would prohibit their use at those locations and also stop poor families from using the cards out-of-state.
“Sometimes to do the right thing all people need is a little bit of encouragement,” Baxley said before the 13-4 vote. Rep. Mack Bernard of West Palm Beach split with fellow Democrats on the bill, saying he was troubled to learn the cards had been used at Internet cafés.
That provision could hurt abused women fleeing the state for their safety, objected Pafford, who failed to get the committee to strip the out-of-state provision.
Critics of the proposed policy say limiting where the cards can be used will not have much impact, in part because the cards can be used at ATMs where cash can be spent anywhere.
“It won’t have that big of an impact in terms of restricting individual usage,” Wilkins said. “I think we’ve got to deal with the fraud issue more and more. It’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of more and more fraud policies coming down the pike.”
Wilkins said his agency is trying to combat fraud in other ways, including taking steps to verify the identity of people applying for the benefits. Those applications are now done on-line, but Wilkins said he wants to add questions that would screen out imposters. If the questions aren’t answered correctly, applicants would then have to apply in person, Wilkins said.