Welfare Photos Shame Holders as States Target Abuses

Diane Sullivan says that when she pulls out her food-stamp card to buy groceries, she keeps the side with her photo cupped in her hand so people can’t see.

While Massachusetts requires her to have the identification to prevent fraud, the 40-year-old mother of five from Medford calls it “a card of shame.”

Maine and Georgia joined Massachusetts and New York last month in putting photos on welfare cards to stop misuse of taxpayer money, and similar proposals have been offered in a dozen other U.S. states. Opponents question whether it saves more than it costs. They also say it dissuades residents from getting benefits, much as critics of requiring identification to vote argue it keeps some from casting ballots.

“People sometimes make these snap judgments,” said Sullivan, who works part-time as policy director at the nonprofit Homes for Families in Boston. “As soon as they see that I’ve got this photo card, they’re like, ‘Oh, there’s a poor woman who’s lazy. To see it gain steam in other states is extremely concerning to me.”

Recipients’ photos are being added to cards used to access federal benefits such as cash payments and food stamps, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Massachusetts used photos that about 170,000 recipients had on file with the Registry of Motor Vehicles and equipped offices with cameras to take pictures of the 55,000 who didn’t, said Stacey Monahan, commissioner of the Transitional Assistance Department.

Maine Misuse

Maine began adding photos April 28 in a pilot project, and Republican Governor Nathan Deal in Georgia signed a bill the next day requiring them. States including Iowa, Rhode Island and Washington have introduced bills to add a photo to cards, require that recipients show a picture ID when using benefits or to study the question, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

New York stopped mandating photos for food-stamp cards when it ended a fingerprint requirement in 2012, according to the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. It still require pictures for cash assistance.

Governor Paul LePage of Maine, a first-term Republican, pushed for the photo after releasing data in January showing what he said were thousands of transactions involving the misuse of benefits at liquor stores, smoke shops and strip clubs.

Easily Eluded

The photo requirements don’t prevent food-stamp abuse because of a federal requirement that all household members have access to the benefits on the card, said Patricia Baker, a policy analyst at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, a nonprofit in Boston that researches poverty. Retailers can’t ask to see the photo unless they check all customers using plastic. It also won’t stop fraud when retailers collude with card holders, she said.

A picture can keep someone from legitimately using benefits by making it more difficult to get a card and shaming some recipients from using it, Baker said.

Similar arguments are made about requiring photo ID at the polls. A federal judge ruled April 29 that Wisconsin’s law burdens minorities and “only tenuously serves the state’s interest in preventing voter fraud.”

Nor are the photo laws the only attempt to institute new -- and some say humiliating -- conditions for government help.

At least 10 states passed legislation regarding drug testing or screening for public assistance, according to the NCSL. A Mississippi law enacted in March requires applicants to complete a questionnaire about the likelihood of substance use and, if indicated, submit to a drug test.

Elderly, Disabled

A third of Rhode Island food-stamp recipients are elderly or disabled, and requiring a photo may create difficulty for many, Sandra Powell, director of the state’s Department of Human Services, said in an April 30 letter to a lawmakers.

A Pennsylvania legislative committee study also questioned whether an ID was worth the cost. The 2012 study found that while current SNAP cards cost 23 cents, requiring a photo ID would cost about $8 for each card. They also “are limited in their ability to prevent some of the most common types of fraud,” the study said.

That doesn’t mean states shouldn’t do everything they can to prevent crime, said Georgia Representative Greg Morris, who sponsored his state’s law.

“Anybody who doesn’t think that food stamps are not ripe with fraud is just closing their eyes and don’t want to see the truth,” Morris, a Vidalia Republican, said by phone.

Hungry Holidays

Even so, the U.S. Agriculture Department criticized Massachusetts, which required a photo for about 225,000 recipients last year while exempting those under 18, the elderly, blind, disabled and victims of domestic violence.

Cards for about 7,500 recipients were deactivated before they got new ones, which could deny needed benefits, especially during the holiday season, according to a Dec. 19 letter from Jessica Shahin, associate administrator of SNAP. She called it “extremely troubling.”

The state did everything it could to reach recipients, some of whom are transient, said Monahan of the Transitional Assistance Department. The photo, which will cost about $1.4 million this year and $400,000 in 2015 to implement, will be another tool for stopping abuse, she said.

That’s money wasted, Sullivan said.

“I can understand that there’s a maybe a public perception that it’s solving for fraud, waste and abuse, but the reality is, it’s not,” she said.

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