Florida’s strip clubs, liquor stores, casinos, pornographic video shops and bookstores would no longer receive food stamps and welfare money, if a bill filed by state Rep. Jimmie T. Smith, R-Inverness, passes the Legislature. Last week, the House’s Healthy Families Subcommittee approved HB 701, and it continues to progress through Tallahassee.
Last year, Jacksonville’s Action News found that food stamp cards were being used at strip clubs, bars and gaming centers in Jacksonville, saying, “No one is tracking how or where the money is being spent.” The Florida Department of Children and Families officials told Action News reporter Ashley Coleman that recipients can “use the card to buy anything you want.” DCF said it lacked laws needed to prevent such abuses. Similar revelations have been reported in New York and California.
Smith’s measure would require that “an electronic benefits transfer card may not be used or accepted at certain establishments” and specify “penalties for violations of card use restrictions.” Although food stamps are dispursed under a federal program, they are managed by the states. Smith’s proposed reform is authorized by a section of the federal Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, meant to fix the problem.
ATM machines can be used to withdraw food stamp cash almost anywhere. Paper food stamps in their old form are obsolete. Recipients now get pre-paid debit cards called EBT, or electronic benefit transfer, cards. EBT cards allow recipients to spend the funds anywhere a credit card or debit card is accepted, for almost anything. The pre-paid cards are recharged regularly with money from the government.
Strip clubs and casinos presumably install ATM machines to exploit the weaknesses of patrons tempted to spend more than they should. In many states, millions of dollars from government assistance funds have been spent on the ATM fees alone at such establishments, according to media reports. Presumably, the cash can be spent at the strip clubs, casinos, liquor stores, etc., without any paper trail.
Smith’s HB 701 comes as nearly 48 million Americans are receiving food stamps. The program has increased by 135 percent, and the number participating has increased by 70 percent over the last four years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The Government Accountability Office found that the number of food stamp recipients has doubled and that the costs have increased four-fold over the last decade.
Government Accountability Office auditors found that $460 million of food stamp benefits went to ineligible recipients. A gas station clerk in California recently revealed that some on food stamps have as much as $7,000 unused on their EBT card, prompting investigations in California, according to media reports.