Florida’s EBT program has liquor loophole

Some Florida residents may be using EBT cards to buy liquor, which is illegal.

Amid the federal backdrop of rising welfare entitlements, Florida lawmakers made it illegal a year ago to use the electronic benefit transfer cards at strip clubs, casinos and establishments licensed under Florida’s Beverage Law that sell distilled spirits.

That includes all liquor stores, according to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Records obtained by Watchdog.org show nearly $25,000— from April 2013 through January 2014 — was withdrawn from liquor store ATM machines using Temporary Assistance for Needy Families EBT cards.

TANF is a federal safety net intended to provide cash assistance for low-income families with dependent children.

A true dollar amount, however, is difficult to determine. Vendor information is limited according to TANF records, making it impossible to know if unlawful purchases were made at licensed grocery or convenience stores.

Cash can also be withdrawn at almost any ATM, and cash transactions are untraceable.

Watchdog.org compiled ATM withdrawal figures only from establishments with “liquor” in their store titles, and we limited the review to Florida’s eight most populous cities.

It sounds like a wide dragnet, but a countywide search probably would have yielded greater results. Miami, for example, has 414,000 residents;  Miami-Dade County has a population of 2.6 million.

ATM withdrawals at a Crown Wine and Spirits store in Fort Lauderdale totaled $1,527 in January. Transactions from the popular liquor chain’s 11 other store locations in the surrounding area were not available for review.

Records of cash-assistance ATM withdrawals cannot be supplied by county, John Jackson, assistant general counsel for the Florida Department of Children and Families, told Watchdog.org. DCF is tasked with administering the federal welfare program.

Jackson also informed Watchdog.org that DCF does not have merchant information for the first three months of 2013, and federal regulations prohibit the agency from releasing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, data.

While some Florida establishments that sell liquor also sell food and other items, many, like Mike’s Liquor and Beer Barn in Tallahassee, do not.

Next to Mike’s Pawn Shop and a short walk from the city’s main bus station, a clerk at Mike’s liquor store told Watchdog.org his electronic cash register doesn’t accept TANF cards. When asked if someone could use EBT cash withdrawn from the ATM machine several steps away, the clerk shrugged. “How would I know if they did,” he said.

Point-of-sale machines, or electronic cash registers, were blocked from accepting EBT cards at  prohibited locations in October.

“ATMs are more difficult to identify,” Michelle Glady, press secretary for the Florida Department of Children and Families, told Watchdog.org in an email.

“They (ATMs) must be blocked using the terminal identification number of each ATM machine,” she said. “Terminal IDs are not readily accessible and the ID is not on the exterior of the machine.”

It’s also the vendors’ responsibility to block their ATMs.

“To date, 78 ATMs throughout the state have been blocked,” said Glady.

“There are no penalties for using cash at these establishments.”

Contact William Patrick at [email protected] 

Published with permission from Watchdog.org.

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