WASHINGTON – If states want to control their own food stamp programs, 49 of them would have to change the way they distribute benefits, under a bill moving through Congress.
Maryland would not.
“Maryland has become a model for the rest of the country, a model of what can work,” said Linda West, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources.
Maryland is the only state that distributes food stamps electronically. A House committee Tuesday approved a bill that would require individual states to convert to the system Maryland has used statewide since 1993, or be forced to have their food stamp programs remain under federal control.
A vote on the bill in the House has not yet been scheduled.
In Maryland, 468,000 people receive food stamps, welfare, and child support through an electronic system, West said. Transactions for the three programs total $57 million a month.
The state automatically deposits welfare checks in accounts recipients access with a personal identification number.
With one swipe of the card at the grocery check-out, the recipient’s monthly food stamp allotment is debited for the exact amount of purchase.
The electronic system saves money by eliminating paper stamps that can be lost or stolen. It can also make fraud easier to spot and reduce administrative costs, supporters say.
Since 1993, Maryland has reported saving $1 million annually in administrative costs.
But Democratic opponents to the House bill have complained about other provisions. For instance, the bill would cap cost-of- living adjustments for food stamp benefits at 2 percent a year. Benefits now rise with inflation. The bill would also clamp down on who could receive benefits.
And not everyone in Maryland sees the electronic system as flawless. Linda Eisenberg, director of the nonprofit Maryland Food Committee, said people in rural areas may have trouble finding stores that accept the electronic system. Senior citizens with mobility problems, she said, may find it difficult to get to stores that participate.
Adrienne Curtis, 39, of Baltimore, is a program believer. She receives $267 a month in food stamps for herself and her two children. She said the electronic program’s Independence Card has made her life a lot easier.
“When I lost my card, I got a new one right away and I didn’t lose any benefits,” Curtis said. “When I lost my [paper] stamps, I just lost them.”
The electronic system also makes fraud easier to track, proponents say. It makes it more difficult to trade stamps for cash, alcohol or cigarettes.
“We can follow a paper trail and track offenders,” said Bert Finkelstein, inspector general for the state’s Department of Human Resources.
The electronic system does not eliminate fraud, however. Before it was put in place, the Department of Human Resources estimated that 1 percent of recipients were participating in food stamp trafficking. It believes the same holds true now.
“The difference is that now we have substantive information, opposed to someone saying, `I saw this and I saw that,’ ” West said. “We know who’s committing fraud and we can stop it.”
Last week, for example, a Silver Spring grocer was sentenced to 13 months in prison and ordered to pay a fine of $3,600 for food stamp fraud, according to Lynne A. Battaglia, U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland.
The grocer and his cashier used a number of food stamp recipients’ Independence Cards to report sales. Then they gave each recipient one-half of the sale amount in cash. They kept the rest.
Battaglia estimated the grocer and the cashier stole between $200,000 and $300,000 in a two-year period using this method. The cashier will be sentenced at the end of the month.
The electronic records for the grocery store helped investigators spot the fraud, said Department of Human Resources officials. A number of transactions for even amounts were a tip- off, officials said.
Food stamp holders caught in a fraud get more chances, Finkelstein said. They get “a rap across the knuckles the first time so they know someone is watching,” he said. “But it’s one of these three strikes and you’re out.”
Recipients say the electronic system eases the stigma of paying with food stamps at the check-out counter.
“There was a stigma you always felt when you used your food stamps. People would watch you,” Curtis said. “Now, you use the same card that people use at the bank. It gives you back some dignity.”
The food stamp program was created in the 1930s to aid families during the Depression. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, spent $27 billion on it in fiscal year 1994. Only one other welfare program, Medicaid, spends more federal dollars. To qualify for the program in Maryland, a family of four must earn below $8,000. That’s $6,000 below the federal poverty level, according to the Maryland Department of Human Resources. -30-