PAWTUCKET – In the wake of recent revelations about fraud and abuse in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in Rhode Island, Pawtucket Rep. Mary Duffy Messier wants to require that the program’s Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards carry a photo ID of the recipient.
“It’s basically to prevent fraud,” in the federal program once known as Food Stamps, the Democratic lawmaker told The Times Thursday.
Too often, Duffy Messier said, recipients will sell their cards at a reduced rate for cash -- $200 for a card worth $400 in benefits, for example -- that they can then use to buy items such as liquor and cigarettes or to gamble at a casino.
With the photo ID, she said, “if you bought my card from me for $200, then you wouldn’t be able to use it unless you looked like me.”
Duffy-Messier said she got the idea from constituents who complained that Rhode Islanders now have to show a photo ID to vote, “but the people with EBT cards don’t have to show an ID or have an ID.”
Two or three states already use a photo ID on their EBT cards and 10 more are in the process of passing such legislation, she said.
Not only would her proposal save the state money by helping to prevent fraud, Duffy Messier said, but it would also protect the recipients because, “if there is less fraud, it makes it better for everyone.
“When you think about it,” she said, “you need a picture ID to drive, you can’t board a plane without a picture ID, at a lot of schools and colleges, they have student IDs, you even need a photo ID at McCoy Stadium to get a beer.”
“In that sense,” Duffy Messier added, “it seems like why not, there is no reason those cards shouldn’t a photo ID.
“If people are using their cards legitimately, they are not going to lose anything. It is not intended to take anything away from anyone or decrease what they get in any way. It’s only to keep the system fair and above-board.”
No date has yet been set for a hearing on the bill before the House Finance Committee but when it is Duffy Messier expects most of the testimony will be opposed to her bill. She may be correct.
Linda Katz, policy director of the Economic Progress Institute, called it “a terribly unnecessary expense to the state to address a problem that has not been proved to exist. People use their cards responsibly, for the most part.
“I don’t know why it would be necessary and I would be very concerned about the cost,” said
Katz, noting that there was a similar proposal in Massachusetts last year and the legislature rejected it because of the cost. Sometimes people lose their EBT cards, she said, and it would create an extra expense to replace them.
Steven Brown, executive director of the RI ACLU, called it “a knee-jerk reaction to concerns about fraud that are vastly overblown.” In addition, he said, it perpetuates the stereotype that SNAP and other welfare programs are rife with abuse.
Brown said SNAP cards are issued to households, not to individuals, so putting an individual’s photo on the cards could start a bureaucratic process that might create problems for people who are entitled to the benefits.
Also pointing to the potential price of the program, Brown said it could cost more than the amount of fraud it is meant to address.
Duffy Messier acknowledged there would be a cost to the state Department of Human Services (DHS) to take the photos for the EBT cards, but she said she doesn’t have the exact figures yet on what that cost would be.
A phone message seeking response from DHS Director Sandra Powell was not answered on Friday.
“If we have learned anything after the recession, it is that resources like SNAP are both necessary and precious,” the lawmaker said in a written statement. “The photo identification on the EBT cards will simply ensure that SNAP funds are going directly to the people who are enrolled in the program and who have gone through the necessary steps to obtain assistance. We are constantly looking for ways to cut down on waste and fraud, and this is just an extra protection that could save the state money in the long run and further protect these benefits for Rhode Island’s struggling individuals and families.”
Qualification for SNAP benefits is based on income, resources and number of people who live in the applicant’s household. According to DHS, people may qualify for SNAP benefits if their income is less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). It is the largest food and nutrition support program in Rhode Island and functions through a partnership between the state and federal governments.