Maine welfare cash spent at liquor stores, bars, strip clubs and smoke shops

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ebt cardMaine’s welfare system is supposed to provide a social safety net for poor families, but an analysis of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program suggests some are spending their welfare cash on tobacco, alcohol and adult entertainment.

According to Department of Health and Human Services records obtained by The Maine Wire pursuant to a Freedom of Access Act request, abuse and misuse of cash welfare is a much bigger problem in the Pine Tree State than previous thought.

More than $145,000 has been spent or withdrawn from ATMs at locations that primarily or exclusively sell liquor, beer and wine, including more than $20,000 spent at liquor stores outside the state of Maine, according to an analysis of TANF transactions spanning the last three years.

At one liquor store in Somersworth, New Hampshire, Borderline Beverage at 20 Market Street, more than $16,000 in cash welfare has been accessed.

In Skowhegan, at the Beverage Mart, a store that primarily sells beer, wine and liquor, EBT cardholders have accessed $50,720 in welfare cash.

In addition to spending welfare cash at liquor stores, some EBT cardholders are also accessing their benefits at pubs, bars and taverns:

  • $2,420 spent at “pubs,” including: Raena’s Pub in Bangor, Foreplay Sports Pub in Portland, Howies Pub in Portland, Townhouse Pub in Saco, Adams Street Pub in Biddeford, and a handful of pubs in Massachusetts.
  • $2,140 spent at “taverns,” including: Bruno’s Tavern and Old Port Tavern in Portland, The Buxton Tavern in Buxton, Train’s Tavern in East Lebanon and Evelyn’s Tavern in South Portland. There was even $120 spent at the Old School Tavern in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
  • $1,720 spent at places with “Bar” in the name, including: Sunset Bar & Grille in Old Orchard Beach, Barnies Bar and Grill in Lewiston, Nosh Kitchen Bar and Racks Sports Bar and Grill in Portland.

Although the data shows definitively that EBT cardholders have accessed more than $145,000 at stores that exclusively or primarily sell alcohol, the true scope of alcohol-related welfare abuse is likely much higher due to the nature of cash welfare benefits.

According to DHHS, TANF recipients are not allowed to spend welfare cash at retail establishments that derive more than 50 percent of gross revenues from the sale of prohibited items, such as alcohol, tobacco and pornography. However, the state has no formal mechanism in place to ensure that this law is followed and the regulation is easily avoided by withdrawing benefits as cash from an ATM.

The vast amount of TANF funds are withdrawn from ATMs, and once a benefit becomes cash, the state has no way of determining how it has been spent.

DHHS records also confirm that, at a minimum, cash welfare accessed at stores with the words “smoke”, “tobacco”, or “cigarette”, in the name amounts to $360,000 of all cash welfare spending for the past three years.

That’s enough to buy 72,000 packs of cigarettes.

At the Maine Smoke Shop in downtown Skowhegan, EBT cardholders have accessed $18,460 in welfare cash. At the Maine Smoke Shop on Union Street in Bangor, $28,000 worth of welfare cash has been accessed. EBT cardholders at Joe’s Smoke Shop on Congress Street in Portland have used $55,000 in welfare cash.

As is the case with transactions associated with liquor stores and bars, the data only confirms that an ATM withdrawal or purchase was made at that location. Moreover, the data only provides a minimum figure for the amount of welfare actually spent at a given location.

The data only reveals where a TANF recipient used their card, not where they spent their welfare cash. But in many instances, the location is telling.

According to DHHS data, for example, $340 in welfare cash has been withdrawn from ATMs at 190 Harlow Street, Bangor. That address happens to be the location of Diamonds Gentleman’s Club, a strip bar. Similarly, $2080 in welfare cash has been withdrawn from ATMs at 200 Riverside Drive, Portland. That happens to be the address of PT’s Show Club, a strip club.

In February 2012, Congress passed the Welfare Integrity and Data Improvement Act as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. The Act requires states, by Feb. 22, 2014, to establish practices and policies that prevent TANF assistance from being used in any EBT transaction at any liquor store or other prohibited venues.

States that fail to meet this deadline could see their TANF block grants decreased by up to 5 percent.

Steve Robinson
Maine Wire, Editor

16 COMMENTS

  1. I feel u should be drug tested to receive any help from the state because the work force gets drug tested before they can start a new job I know of so many people who use the state that true dont need it they also need to start looking at. Sec 8 girls who get it and there boyfriends work and make good money for dont tell the state so they dont have to pay rent my wife and I work hard to keep a roof over are 3 kids head and food on the table we have try toget some help from the state and the state worker tell me to quit my job and they would help us its the state worker that need to be looked at to

  2. there is an easy solution to accessing atm in these places just have the ebt card not on their list for those places it may not stop ilegal use but at least it won’t come from illegal place and it may cut down on abuse

  3. OK so prove the benefits were spent wrong….you cant….if I live in a community where there are very few stores within walking distance..I guess I would have to use the nearest ATM around…Maybe the cash was drawn at the only accessible ATM around, and the money was spent elsewhere for MILK because the foodies were gone…get real….the only way to stop fraud is AT THE TOP…get rid of Mayhue, LePage and the like….tear down the walls at DHHS all over the state of Maine, and FIRE anyone whom has proven to be less than honest when HANDING out food stamps to people they favor, and turning the rest away….GET RID OF THE FRAUDULENT DHHS WORKERS FIRST!!!!!!!!!! AND THE FRAUD LIVING IN THE BLAINE HOUSE!!!!!

  4. They should not be allowed to use the cards to access cash. The cards should only be for food and necessities like toilet paper, laundry det, soaps, etc. Even if it is only just a little bit a fraud, it is still fraud and needs to be addressed. I don’t think we should go back to the voucher system, just take away the atm option.

  5. First of all: People should be spending the money they receive on things they need and things they need only. A pizza once in awhile is fine (they deserve some form of luxury here and there). So in other words I do believe the money should be spent responsibly: Now to the nitty gritty:
    I have lots of problems with this article, mainly something called, perspective. According to this article, $145,000 has been spent at these locations, which do make money off of booze, also tends to sell milk, bread, basic needs etc (they all do!). Now these people are poor and likely cannot afford a vehicle. Do I pay to get to Hannaford or Wal*Mart or do I walk down the road to the corner store? What I am saying is, this article utterly ignores the fact that some of that money was not spent irresponsibly. Let us, assume, all of it is, every penny is spent on beer and porn.

    Let us assume that, 10,000 people will ONLY receive $500 in benefits (these are low ball numbers). That amounts to 5 million, of which 145 grand is roughly 3% of that number. What does that mean? That means that, a negligible amount of people are abusing the system, based on the information provided in this article.

    So before you go and change the rules due to less than 5% of people, think about what you’ll be doing to the 95%+ that you’ll be hurting. Critical thinking, it’s important. And shame on the writers of this article. Journalism has become nothing more than a propaganda machine.

  6. Who was the genius who said that EBT cards could be used in ATM machines? Why are people allowed to use these cards in bars, beauty shops, smoke shops? The cards should be restricted to purchase food-not prepared foods like sandwiches or junk food. We should all be protesting this abuse!

  7. WOW…I’ve gone through the first 100 transaction entries and they do raise questions…26 at 1 Exchange st.–an empty store?? Okaloosa airport atm, Valpraiso Fl—where does air travel money come from….50 at the 20 M social club in Lewiston…bingo money or ??…..41 at the 5 points smoke shop, Biddeford…

    Lepage has more than proved his point; but will the legislature do anything beyond token ‘reform’?

  8. Food for thought (pun intended)

    What are the options for eliminating the fraud?
    For each option will the cost of eliminating the fraud result in a net savings?
    Does the cost of eliminating fraud include the time spent by government officials?
    What work does not get done by government officials working on the fraud issue and what is that cost?
    Will the correction of the fraud issue affect those not fraudulent in their use of the EBT? Has this been factored into the net savings?

    I do not deny there is fraud; where there is money there is greed – we see that every day in the private sector and in the public sector. However, the governor and the MaineWire have not clearly defined fraud as evidenced by a number of comments to this article. Without clear definition of what is fraud in this case and with that its cost, evaluation of corrective measures cannot begin.

    Is the timing of this report part of the governor’s campaign strategy? Will he drag this along until November in order to show how he is addressing Maine’s financial challenges? I would prefer he demonstrate how he will create jobs without destroying the environment.

    Is this another avenue to encourage drug-testing of all welfare recipients? If so will that cost be included in the options for addressing fraud? What have been the results of drug testing in other states, cost versus benefit? I will gladly support any type of drug testing on citizens providing it is also performed on all public sector employees. They are paid from the same pool of taxpayer money as the EBT.

    The headline, the picture, the over-arching generalities, and cherry-picked data points of this article are Sensationalism 101. They are intended to get the emotional blood flowing, but not the brain. This is an insult to the intellect of all Mainers.

  9. The real problem is taking money away from those that earn it (at the point of an IRS jackbooted thug agents gun) and giving it to parasites. Just because we were born on the same planet does not mean I owe you anything other than not to violate your rights to live as you please. So stop stealing from me every week and take care of yourself and your family. #%$#&$ cowards use the gov’t to steal for them. Too lazy to sneak in at night to rob me, because there is a risk involved.

  10. It has been proven several times that benefits are spent wrong. How many times have people been caught buying bottled water only to empty them out and get returns? I know of several that sell food purchased through TANF for half the price in cash. And these are only examples of withdrawals being made at liquor locations. Many TANF recipients withdraw all of their benefits the day they are put into their bank account. I’m guessing they don’t spend any of that on tobacco/liquor/drugs too right? Its time for a little common sense. There is no question that the statistics pointed out in this article are only a fraction of purchases made illegally with TANF benefits. And what about the money withdrawn in Puerto Rico and every beach in Florida? I’m sure there is an excuse for that too. I am absolutely disgusted that people use this article to discredit DHHS. As if it is there fault that they pointed out benefits being spent in every state, Disney, beaches, and the US Virgin Islands. Instead of punishing DHHS workers, how about punishing the people spending the money in vacation spots? Of course not, that would make too much sense, It is time for people to take responsibility for their own actions. I sure the hell can’t afford to go to Hawaii or Disney. I’m guessing the majority of people complaining about this article are on welfare themselves and see a threat to their free booze and drugs. You dont think spending money at bars and taverns with benefits is spending them wrong? They DID prove the benefits were spent wrong. A braindead child could comprehend that. The benefits were NOT created to spend at bars or taverns or Disney. I was surprised at the complaints in regard to this article, but realizing how much of Maine’s population receives welfare explains everything. I’d be worried too

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