Plastic to Replace Food Stamps in Clinton Proposal

WELFARE is going high-tech as Vice President Al Gore continues to reinvent government, this time by making welfare benefits available at the swipe of a card.

The Benefits Security card will make it easy for welfare recipients and some Social Security recipients to access their benefits, such as food stamps or unemployment payments, Mr. Gore says. When recipients go shopping or to the bank, they can retrieve their benefits at the teller machine or in the check-out line. Gore predicts the plan, called Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT), will save taxpayers about $200 million per year in administrative costs and will be in place by 1999.

Cheaper plan

Gore estimates EBT would cost about $20 million a year to run. Currently, printing and handing out food stamps alone costs $75 million a year while collecting, counting, and shredding them costs $22 million.

``It's a win-win situation,'' Gore says. ``You cut down on the fraud and abuse, you deliver the services more efficiently, you save the taxpayers money, and you eliminate some of the stigma that those who really legitimately deserve these benefits sometimes have to endure with the current system.'' Although Gore admits that welfare fraud would still be a problem, he says making the system electronic would cut down on crime, since tracking defrauders is easier electronically.

People could no longer sell their food stamps for cash and benefit checks would not get lost in the mail.

A few states, such as Maryland, New Mexico, and Minnesota, are already using similar plans, while nine other states have joined with the federal government to pilot their own programs.

Maryland has been running EBT statewide since March 1993 and thus far has seen few problems, says Dale Brown in Maryland's EBT office. In fact, Ms. Brown says, recipients manage their finances better because they are not walking around with cash. ``Their spending habits change,'' Brown says. ``They are shopping sales and using coupons.''

Studies from pilot programs like Maryland's have also shown that recipients like the added dignity using a card gives them when going through a market's checkout. Instead of pulling out food stamps to pay, they use their cards like everyone else.

Lessening stigma

Tim O'Connor of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Services says that lessening welfare's stigma does not mean recipients are staying on longer.

Studies of pilot programs show that welfare caseloads are neither growing or slowing as a result of EBT. ``Just because they have a card is no incentive to get $200 a month,'' adds Brown, who says the average person stays on welfare in Maryland for one to two years and has one child.

The program will not be without hurdles, Mr. O'Connor says. Start-up costs could pose problems. One potentially expensive regulation says all cards must be insured.

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