Massachusetts last year became one of the first states to require food stamp cards to include photos of recipients, but the new program has created such confusion that some low-income families are unable to buy groceries and the federal government is demanding that the state quickly fix the problem.
The cards, known as EBTs, an acronym for Electronic Benefit Transfer, act like debit cards and are issued to heads of households. But some store cashiers have turned away the recipients’ family members or others in the household — who can legally use the benefits — because they do not match the photos. Such practices violate federal rules, which require retailers to treat food stamp recipients like any other customer.
It is unclear how widespread the problems were. But they were significant enough that the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program, recently sent state officials a strongly worded letter detailing concerns about the implementation of the photo cards.
The USDA dispatched agents to Massachusetts in August and found that state workers were inadequately trained about rules governing the photo cards, and subsequently, so were recipients and retailers. The USDA also found that elderly and disabled residents were denied benefits unless they had their pictures taken, even though the state specifically exempted them from photo requirements.
In addition, the USDA said, many families had benefits cut off for up to three weeks because their old cards were deactivated before they received new cards in the mail.
“There are significant concerns with regard to client access to program benefits,” the USDA said in the Dec. 2 letter, threatening to withdraw administrative funding for the program unless the problems are resolved. The federal government, which funds food stamps, pays half the costs that states incur to administer the program.
Stacey Monahan, commissioner of the state Department of Transitional Assistance, disputed the USDA’s findings, saying that the federal agency provided little evidence in the letter to back up its assertions. Her staff met with the state’s largest retail trade group, for example, asking it to spread the word about handling the new cards, Monahan said. She is preparing a detailed response to the USDA.
The Department of Transitional Assistance estimated it spent $1.5 million to take photographs and mail the cards to about 225,000 recipients. The agency began sending the cards about a year ago.
“It was a very successful implementation,” Monahan said. “For everybody who was supposed to get their card and their benefits, it worked.”
Not for Vicki Kam, a 46-year-old mother of two. Kam and her family have had to rely on food stamps since 2010, following her husband’s layoff from his IT job the previous year. He has since only been able to find part-time work.
In late October, Kam said, she presented her benefits card at a Boston-area Costco, but the cashier would not accept it because it bore her husband’s photo. Kam appealed to a supervisor, explaining again that it was her husband’s photo and noting that she had entered the correct pin number for the account. But the supervisor denied the purchase as well.
“There were people everywhere,” Kam said. “I was so embarrassed.”
Costco did not respond to requests for comment.
The Legislature enacted the photo requirements in August 2013 under pressure to address public perceptions of fraud in the food stamp and other benefits programs. Some card holders had bought and sold the cards, or sometimes used them to buy items other than food in collusion with a store cashier. The USDA has said the photo measure is not an effective antifraud tool, because of privacy rules. Governor Deval Patrick signed the bill, but expressed misgivings.
“Other states have considered and rejected this type of measure on the grounds that the cost outweighs the benefit, and that the previous administration here in Massachusetts came to a similar conclusion,” Patrick wrote to legislators in 2013.
Patricia Baker, a senior policy analyst at the Mass Law Reform Institute, an advocacy group that opposed the photo requirement, said the amount of fraud in public assistance programs is relatively small and photo requirements ultimately punish struggling families who use the cards legitimately. The USDA’s review of the Massachusetts program confirms that, she said.
Baker said the institute has fielded many phone calls from supermarket staff and managers trying to understand the photo requirement.
“It’s shameful,” Baker said. “It’s humiliating and making it harder to ensure that people that get these benefits use them.”
Bill Rennie, vice president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said he met with state and USDA officials about the photo cards shortly after the law was passed. But he said neither the trade group nor its members received any “direct correspondence, guidance, or information on how to handle the cards.”
“We would have hoped the state would have directly notified [retailers],” he said.
Georgia Mattison, project director at the Poor Peoples United Fund, a Boston nonprofit that advocates for antihunger programs, said she visited a Jamaica Plain supermarket last winter, shortly after the new photo ID cards were mailed, and witnessed people experiencing problems when their cards were unexpectedly declined.
She said she brought her concerns to state officials, but they denied there were significant problems.
“It’s caused this incredible confusion,” she said of the photo cards, “and they say everything is just great.”