According to an analysis of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, Maine welfare cash has been spent in every other state in the Union, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Department of Health and Human Services records related to TANF, a program intended to provide cash assistance to low-income families, was obtained by The Maine Wire pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request. The data includes three years’ worth of transactions involving Maine Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, the debit cards that carry benefits for multiple welfare programs.
According to DHHS records, cash welfare users from Maine have spent $2.8 million outside of the state over the last three years – and not just in neighboring New Hampshire.
According to HHS records, the top recipients of Maine’s welfare cash are: New Hampshire: $1.4 million; Massachusetts: $360,000; Florida: $206,000; and New York: $100,000.
Measured by transactions, Maine EBT cards have been used 11,328 times in New Hampshire over the past three years. EBT cards have been used 2,918 times in Massachusetts and 1,252 times in Florida during the same period.
Neither Maine nor the federal government places restrictions on the geographical use of TANF welfare cash.
There are possible reasons a household may be using benefits in another state legitimately. It may be more convenient or cost effective to shop in a bordering state; military families receiving benefits in Maine might be transferred to another state; natural disasters, domestic violence, or divorce, may displace people, making it necessary to seek shelter with out-of-state family members or friends; or families may move to find employment.
Although using welfare cash outside of Maine is currently legal, only residents can apply for and receive benefits. In cases where welfare recipients use their benefits outside the state of Maine for an extended period of time, it may be the case that that individual no longer resides in the state and may be improperly receiving benefits. The state does not currently have any formal mechanism in place to identify such recipients and terminate their benefits.
Republican Gov. Paul R. LePage has introduced legislation that would place certain geographic restrictions on the use of EBT cards.
Speaker of the House Mark W. Eves (D-North Berwick) has indicated a willingness to consider placing some restrictions on EBT card use, but progressive advocacy groups have said such restrictions are an unnecessary hassle for poor.
Analysis of Out-of-State Welfare Spending
The Maine Wire’s analysis of out-of-state TANF transactions reveals use patterns suggesting that, in many instances, welfare cash is used in ways not likely to achieve the program’s goal of encouraging a return to the work force.
For example, on Aug. 1, 2011, one or more EBT cards were used within a three-minute timeframe to access nearly $500 in welfare cash at an ATM in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. That particular ATM happens to be located almost on top of the campus of Disney World Resorts.
On March 1, 2011, at 3:20AM, a Maine EBT cardholder accessed an ATM in Cape Canaveral, Florida, twice, withdrawing $400. The address of the ATM corresponds with Ron Jon Cape Caribe Resort.
Additional Sunshine State transactions occur at the Kennedy Space Center in Orlando, the Family Fun Center of Lakeland, and at North Miami Beach, Miami Beach, Vero Beach, Ormond Beach and Daytona Beach – all hotspots for Mainers on vacation.
Spending data from other states also suggests that cash welfare is being used to supplement a vacationing family’s budget. Welfare cash recipients have, for example, spent $3,437 in Las Vegas. And, as recently as October, Maine welfare cash was withdrawn from the Four Seasons Resort Aviara in Carlsbad, Calif.
Maine welfare cash has also found its way as far as Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Isles.
According to the data, four transactions occurred in Hawaii in 2011 and 2012, including $300 ATM withdrawals in Waipahu, Wahiawa, and a $140 withdrawal in Honolulu.
In Puerto Rico, Maine EBT cards have been used to access more than $3,400 in welfare cash, in the cities of San Lorenzo, Vieques, and Bayamon.
Welfare cash has also been spent in the Virgin Islands city of St. John, at the Mongoose Junction shopping center.
Although no one can know for sure how much of this cash has been spent or obtained illegally, the volume of cash flowing to popular vacation destinations suggests an abuse of the program. At the minimum, out-of-state spending in places like Florida, Hawaii, California and Las Vegas suggest some cash welfare recipients are not using their taxpayer-funded benefits to help return to work.
This is story is the first in a series analyzing Maine’s TANF program.