BOSTON – Taking aim at what they call an abuse of the taxpayers' money, a growing number of states are blocking welfare recipients from spending their benefits on booze, cigarettes, lottery tickets, casino gambling, tattoos and strippers.
"If you're not abusing the program, then you should really have no problem with these reforms," said state Rep. Shaunna O'Connell, a Republican pushing for restrictions in Massachusetts.
While the crackdown has strong populist appeal in Democratic and GOP states alike in this era of tight budgets and tea party demands for fiscal discipline, advocates for the poor argue that the restrictions are based on stereotypes about people on welfare, and they say the notion of any widespread abuse is a myth. Most people on public assistance, they contend, are single mothers struggling just to get by.
The movement has been spurred in part by Congress. Under legislation signed by President Barack Obama in February to extend a payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits, welfare recipients are barred from using their cash assistance in strip clubs, casinos and liquor stores. States must change their own laws to conform by 2014.
From Arizona to Maine, states have been going even further on their own, adopting or considering legislation to block the use of benefits for other items deemed frivolous. Among them: porn, cruises and psychic readings.
In the past 12 years, at least 10 states passed laws restricting welfare purchases, three of them this year, while at least 14 others are proposing similar legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Around 4.4 million people received about $30 billion in cash assistance in fiscal year 2011 through the federal-state welfare program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. States set their own eligibility requirements. (An estimated 44.7 million people received food stamps, and that program has long barred people from using their benefits to buy anything other than certain foods.)
Welfare recipients are issued their benefits via Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, cards, which can be used like debit cards to buy things or to withdraw cash from ATMs. Some states have barred the use of the cards to buy certain prohibited products; others have banned cash purchases of such items, too.
But cash transactions are all but impossible to police. To make it more difficult for welfare recipients to withdraw cash and spend it on banned items, states such as California and Washington have reprogrammed ATMs inside certain businesses to automatically reject welfare benefit cards.
Depending on the state, welfare recipients who violate the rules can face jail time, the loss of their benefits and fines ranging from $25 in Washington to $2,000 in Maine. Merchants can be fined or lose their business licenses. Some of the states that have joined the trend say they have no figures yet on violations.
Supporters of the stricter laws have seized on media investigations that have uncovered potential abuses.
California, for example, enacted laws to prohibit ATM withdrawals at liquor stores, strip clubs and gambling establishments following a 2010 investigation by the Los Angeles Times that found that $1.8 million in welfare benefits had been taken out of cash machines at California casinos over an eight-month period.
But Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a policy analyst for the Center for Law and Social Policy, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, said the regulations reflect "people's preconceived notions and stereotypes of low-income people." She said poor people have hardly any money left over for things like alcohol or tattoos after they pay for necessities.
New York lawmakers have proposed barring spending on alcohol, strip clubs, cruise ships and psychics. "It's a slap in the face to people who are on public assistance and are trying to get off, when others abuse the system," said state Sen. Thomas Libous, a Republican.
Ann Valdez of Brooklyn's Coney Island section said it's "crazy" for the government to be dictating where people spend their assistance instead of creating living-wage jobs. She said she struggles just to cover toiletries, clothing and other expenses for herself and her 13-year-old son on the $120 she receives every two weeks.
"I don't know one person who uses their EBT money to buy liquor or anything like that," Valdez said.
Washington state lawmakers have prohibited purchases of tattoos, body piercings, alcohol and tobacco. Bars, bail bond agencies, gambling establishments and strip clubs are also now required to deactivate the ability of their ATMs to accept benefit cards. Colorado and Indiana have banned alcohol, guns and gambling.
Lawmakers in New Hampshire are calling for tighter restrictions after Jackie Whiton, a Peterborough store clerk, was fired in May for turning away a customer who tried to legally buy cigarettes with a benefits card. "I could not sit back and watch it happen," she said.
Christopher Borges, a New Hampshire resident, defended his and other welfare recipients' ability to buy cigarettes in a July 7 editorial submitted to the Concord Monitor newspaper.
"Why do people who are sick or unemployed need to justify their spending habits, simply because they are in receipt of support from their community (transferred via the government in the form of cash)?" he wrote. He did not respond to requests for comment.
In Massachusetts, lawmakers are considering banning card purchases of tattoos, pornography and guns. The proposal would also prohibit spending at nail salons, jewelry stores and casinos. Welfare recipients in the state are already barred from using their cards to buy lottery tickets, tobacco and alcohol. Pennsylvania legislators are calling for sweeping restrictions as well.
Philadelphia resident Lisa Crawford, who receives $375 a month in benefits for herself and her 11-year-old son, said using public assistance at strip clubs and liquor stores is "abusive." But otherwise, she said, "I think you should be accountable for your living situation and should be able to buy what you want as long as your main bills are taken care of."
Crawford, who has been going on job interviews, said nail or hair salons shouldn't be put off limits, in part because job-seekers must look presentable: "Luxuries can also help you in the workforce."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Juliet Williams in Sacramento, Calif., Holly Ramer in Concord, N.H., Michael Virtanen in Albany, N.Y., and Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pa.