Representative Elizabeth May may not be testing SNAP recipients for drugs, but she and her fellow conservatives continue to aim more suspicion than compassion at the poor. May’s House Bill 1178 would require the Department of Social Services to come up with a plan by the end of this year to implement photo Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards.
The federal Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 (which Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Senator John Thune, and Senator Tim Johnson all supported over President George W. Bush’s veto) gave states the option to issue photo EBT cards. Massachusetts, Maine, and Missuori have tried photo EBT cards as a way to check food stamp trafficking.
Alas, like drug-testing welfare recipients, slapping photos on EBT cards doesn’t appear to be worth the cost:
What emerges from this review is the absence of a compelling logic model to suggest that photo EBT cards might meaningfully reduce card trafficking, given that such trafficking involves the complicity of individuals and retailers for whom a photo on the card will not act as a deterrent. The cost estimates of operating a photo EBT policy, weighed against the limited expectation of altering the behavior of would-be traffickers, suggest strongly that photo EBT cards are not a cost-effective approach to combat trafficking. This assessment is strengthened by evidence from Massachusetts that retailer clerks generally do not check the photos on the cards. Moreover, it is evident that many participants who are subject to the state’s photo EBT card requirement have encountered difficulty with the state agency’s procedures for obtaining a photo card and with the grocery checkout practices of some food retailers that have prevented participants from accessing their program benefits [Greory B. Mills and Christopher Lowenstein, “Assessing the Merits of Photo EBT Cards in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” Urban Institute, March 2015].
Massachusetts and Missouri have both found costs to taxpayers outweighing benefits:
Massachusetts estimates it will spend $5 million-$7 million to fully implement its photo requirement for EBT cards and $4.4 million annually on an ongoing basis. Yet the state has already found the photo requirement to be a wasteful use of public resources meant to help low-income people escape poverty.
In 2004, Republican Gov. Mitt Romney’s administration terminated a previous EBT photo requirement that took effect in the late 1990s after determining it resulted in no savings for taxpayers, carried high administrative costs and failed as a fraud deterrent. In Missouri, a state audit came to the same conclusion in 2001, and that state has nixed its photo rule [editorial, “Past Proof of Wasteful Spending on EBT Card Photos Doesn’t Deter LePage,” Bangor Daily News, 2014.05.09].
When it comes to social services, Rep. May and her Republican friends seem to put ideology ahead of empirical evidence. Photo EBT cards demonstrate no more effectiveness in cutting already minimal abuse of public benefits than drug testing. Let’s save DSS some hassle and dump HB 1178.