Jason Banta, a man from Show Low Arizona, has been convicted of "fraudulent schemes and unlawful use of food stamps," for using his food stamp money to get illegal drugs.
The state's Department of Economic Security "received a tip that Banta was trading his food stamps for heroin and conducted an investigation."
"Theft of food stamp benefits is a crime. As stewards of taxpayer funds, we will not allow people who steal from the needy to simply walk away," DES Director Tim Jeffries said.
For his part in illegally trading food stamp funds for drugs, Banta "will serve three years intensive probation and pay restitution and court costs," and importantly, "He is also unable to reapply for or obtain food stamps in the future."
To be clear, Banta traded his food stamp benefits for heroin, he did not use them as intended for food to survive.
Trading of food stamp cards is nothing new though, and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture acknowledges it's happening. Many states find that the program's Electronic Benefit Transfer Cards, essentially debit cards tied to the recipient's food stamp account, can be traded for all manner of illegal drugs, weapons and other items.
Recently, in Chicago, an undercover investigation led to the closure of Uptown Grocery after agents determined the owner was running a "flourishing drug market" as well as selling stolen goods from other retailers.
Drug agents across the country are reporting numerous busts that include EBT cards. In Maine, Matt Cashman, an investigative supervisor for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, recently testified that agents for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency has seized 40 EBT cards in 25 different drug busts during the last 11 months.
“From interviews of defendants and others with knowledge of ongoing activity, MDEA has learned that it is common practice for drug dealers to take custody of a drug user’s EBT card either as direct payment or in lieu of immediate payment,” Cashman told the committee. “In those instances where a dealer takes the card in payment, the EBT cardholder will give the dealer their PIN.”
Benefits that are meant to help feed the poor are instead being used for drugs.
How can much of this fraud be stopped? By putting a photo ID on the EBT cards.
Photos on EBT cards would likely deter unathuarized users from presenting the card for purchases, and retailers who accept the EBT funds should easily be able to match the person using the card with the person pictured on that card. This would help prevent a drug dealer from amassing a collection of cards that can then be used without them actually being on the program.
Putting photo ID on benefit cards would also help protect seniors and developmentally disabled beneficiaries from being an easy target of theft from caregivers and family members who may not have the best of intentions.
It seems like such a simple fix, but why aren't more states doing it?
Last year when Maine began their photo ID program, the federal government threatened to cut off their funding saying that the move might have a "chilling effect" on the recipients use of the cards. Maine's Governor Paul LePage has been a vociferous proponent of this policy.
Maine's Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew responded, "We do not believe that a policy putting photos on EBT cards has a ‘chilling effect’ on their appropriate use any more than putting photos on drivers licenses has a ‘chilling effect’ on driving."
Maine has yet to have a single EBT card with photo ID show up in a drug bust.
Regardless of threats from the federal government, elected officials are to be good stewards of the revenue given to them. They should assert their authority to be certain taxpayer money isn't wasted, or worse yet, funneled to illegal activities.
Legislators can curb much of the waste, fraud, and abuse by instituting a few welfare reform best practices - such as auditing their Medicaid rolls and verifying assets for those receiving assistance. Photo ID on EBT cards is one small step toward comprehensive welfare reform, but it's a good place to start.
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