New state laws ban drinking, smoking, gambling on government’s dime

Published: Monday, July 9 2012 4:40 p.m. MDT

A Utah state liquor store photographed on Feb. 20, 2012. A growing number of states are moving to ban welfare recipients from spending government cash on vices such as cigarettes and liquor.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

A growing number of states are moving to ban welfare recipients from spending government cash on vices such as cigarettes and liquor.

Ten states have passed laws restricting purchases and 14 more have legislation on the table, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In addition to cigarettes and alcohol, states are also prohibiting spending on strip clubs, gambling and guns.

The trend is inspired by a new federal law that will cut support to states that don't ban the use of cash benefits in liquor stores, gambling establishments and adult entertainment businesses by 2014, USA Today reported. States stand to lose $125 million.

The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), supplies the poor with grocery money, wrote USA Today's Marisol Bello. The welfare assistance is designed to cover non-food necessities and comes in the form of an "electronic benefit transfer" debit card.

In at least eight states, news outlets have reported people using welfare debit cards to withdraw thousands of dollars from ATMs in casinos, liquor stores and strip clubs, Bello wrote.

"Public assistance is designed to help needy families provide for their children until they can transition back to the workforce and become self-sufficient,” state Sen. Thomas Libous, who sponsored a law in New York, told the New York Post. "This common-sense legislation would protect hardworking taxpayers from abuse while ensuring that individuals receiving welfare benefits continue to get the temporary assistance they need and deserve."

But even with laws on the books, even supporters say it will be difficult — though not impossible — to police welfare recipients' spending habits.

For example, New York's law, which is winding its way through the senate, bars welfare recipients from withdrawing cash from ATMs inside liquor stores, betting parlors and sex clubs. But there is nothing keeping people from withdrawing cash elsewhere and spending it wherever they please, New York Magazine reported.

Massachusetts passed a law last year prohibiting people from spending cash assistance on alcohol, tobacco and lottery tickets, but so far no one has turned in any violators, according to USA Today. It is "not possible to pinpoint what is being purchased, as many retail stores sell a variety of products including food, household items, alcohol and tobacco," said Alec Loftus, a spokesman for the state's Office of Health and Human Services.

Critics say the laws reinforce stereotypes that depict the poor as undeserving and wasteful. This year, 28 states also proposed legislation requiring welfare recipients to undergo drug testing, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Seven states have approved such measures.

"Most people receiving public assistance are grateful for their benefits, and are using them correctly to get back on their feet after suffering financially devastating circumstances," wrote Vicki Davey of examiner.com. "This is an important issue because yes, spending should be monitored; but, can we do this without causing those who have suffered great loss and swallowed their pride to feel punished when they reach out for help?"

EMAIL: estuart@desnews.com; TWITTER: elizMstuart

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