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Make sure welfare used as intended

Friday, February 7, 2014
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If government is going to assist the needy, as it should, then it has a right to insist that the money go to buy necessary, productive, healthy things for individuals and families. Unfortunately, that isn’t happening now in New York state.

Welfare recipients can, and do, use their benefits to buy alcohol, cigarettes, lottery tickets and casino games. Whether it’s done legislatively or administratively, the state needs to put a stop to this.

Recipients of public assistance are issued the same debit card for food stamps and welfare. But food stamps can be used only for such things as fruits, vegetables, meats, fish and dairy products — not beer, wine, alcohol or tobacco. Similarly, welfare benefits should be limited to paying for housing and energy costs, household necessities, school supplies and the like.

Putting limits on how public assistance can be used isn’t punishment for the poor; it’s responsible use of taxpayer dollars. And encouraging a moral, healthy lifestyle is the best way to help struggling families become self-sufficient. That, after all, is the purpose of welfare, expressed right there in the name of the agency that administers it in New York: the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

It’s the same agency Gov. Cuomo now would have address the misuse of welfare funds through regulation. The Assembly also favors this approach, while the Senate would take the legislative route. On Tuesday it passed a bill, for the third year in a row, that would prohibit the use of a social services debit card to directly pay for such things as cigarettes, beer and lottery tickets at convenience stores. It would do the same at liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs, as well as forbid the use of ATM machines to withdraw cash at such places.

As long as a regulation results in essentially the same limits as the Senate bill, we don’t care which method is employed. But the federal government, which is threatening to withhold $120 million in welfare funds if the state hasn’t acted by Feb. 22 to restrict how benefits can be used, might. That’s a powerful incentive to do something that should be done anyway.

The state shouldn’t blow this. It should make sure the regulatory approach is acceptable to the feds, and if not, pass a law.

 
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