The NH House All-Reps List "EBT Card" Dialog, part 1

additional commentary by Rep. Timothy Horrigan; July 5-9, 2012

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Every so often, a story goes viral in the right wing media about lazy welfare recipients using their EBT Cards to rip off the taxpayers. EBT stands for "Electronics Benefits Transfer": these EBT cards are issued by the Department of Agriculture. They look like— and are— ordinary debit cards, and they are used for several welfare programs. The most common program is the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (aka "food stamps") which can only be used for food. But there are a few other programs which pay cash benefits which can be used for anything. The most discreet way to use your cash benefits would be to withdraw actual bills from an ATM, but that is inconvenient (and most ATMs only dispense twenties.) So, many recipients swipe the cards at the register.

A clerk named Jackie Whiton at the Big Apple store in Peterborough, NH made up her own rule that said you couldn't use your ATM cards to buy cigarettes. There absolutely is no such law, and there wasn't even a Big Apple store rule to that effect. (Such a rule would be bad for business, anyway.) On May 20 , 2012, Ms. Whiton confronted an unidentified young man who tried to break her rule. In her own words, "I said to him, 'Do you think that the man in line behind you and the lady behind him want to buy you your cigarettes?' And he said 'Yes.' Then he said, 'Give me back my card.' And I said, 'Give me back my cigarettes.' "

I see where she is coming from, but I think she should have butted out. Big Apple disagreed with her actions, and they fired her. She will be OK: she has become a darling of the rightwing noise machine.

Ms. Whiton has made much of the assumption that the young man could easily get a job. However, he was 20 years old and still had a foster mother, which implies that he is probably disabled. (Although, perhaps this woman was formerly his foster mother and was now still looking after him simply because she loved him as if he was her own son.) I doubt that FoxNews will help him get a job.

Personally, I don't think smoking is a good idea (unless perhaps you suffer from one of a few diseases for which cigarettes happen to be an effective treatment.) I especially think smoking is a bad idea if you have no money. The young man in this ugly incident was either on welfare or he was getting disability payments: either way, he had a very minimal income. Ironically, she was harassing her customer on behalf of the taxpayers for buying the most heavily taxed commodity in the store. Assuming he was buying a bargain brand of cancer sticks, roughly half of his purchase was going right back to the government in the form of tobacco taxes. The feds get $1.01 per pack and the state gets $1.68. A second irony is that Ms. Whiton's employer makes much, perhaps most, of its profit from tobacco sales. I have testified several times against lowering tobacco taxes, and each and every time the loudest voices on the other side of the issue were the state's convenience stores, including Big Apple. One of Speaker O'Brien's biggest priorities during the 2011 budget process was lowering the cigarette tax (although he was only able to cut it by a dime per pack, and had to resort to 11th-hour pressure tactics to get even that minimal cut, which was immediately counterbalanced by a ten-cent per pack rise in wholesale cigarette prices.)

She is talking about circulating a petition. If she wants to make this a New Hampshire House petition, I should warn her that the individuals who sign the petition do not comprise "The People" or "The Taxpayers." This may sound arrogant, but New Hampshire is a republic, and hence the government IS the people. The democratically elected legislature decides how the taxpayers spend their taxes. She would have to do what 300-plus residents of Rochester did on 2012 House Petition #32: have all the signers file the petition jointly. She might also be able to file a petition individually, although she doesn't have much standing to do so, since she was not personally harmed by the current EBT rules. One tactic which she might consider is to first file for unemployment, which under the circumstances she is not entitled to— and subsequently to accuse every official involved in her case of malfeasance.

An interesting dialog on the New Hampshire mailserver began with the following message from a citizen named Chris Borges:

From: Christopher Borges

Sent: Mon, Jul 2, 2012 16:24:42 EDT

Christopher Borges
I wish that my purchase of a pack of cigarrettes wasn't an issue for public debate, but as a recipient of Suplemental Social Security, Food stamp and Medicaid benefits, it suddenly seems that it is. I recieve 698 dollars a month cash from the Social Security Administration for a health condition which has persisted since adolescence (I applied for Social Security in December 2009, it wasn't until this past month, June 2012, that I finally was approved for benefits), I recieve 200 dollars a month for food stamps. The rent at my studio apartment is 550 dollars a month, leaving me 148 dollars a month to spend on everything I need besides food and shelter (which I am greatful to have, to live in a country where there is a minimum social protection floor at this standard of living is something which billions do not benefit from). Can I spend that 5.87$ on a pack of cigarrettes? Is that okay I wonder, as tears well in my eyes reading commentators describing people like me as social parasites. Ironically the same people obsessed with individualism and the free market seem to see a need to tell individuals how to spend their money. Why do people who are sick or unemployed need to justify their spending habits, simply becauase they are in receipt of support from their community (transferred via the government in the form of cash)? Is every taxpayer that I encounter in my life «entitled» (to turn a phrase) a run-down of my medical condition, shelter expenses, etc? Why do people feel license to lambast the poor, speak of us as leeches, a problem that needs to be exterminated? I hope that this letter provokes thought, and not hatred, I know it is uncommon for even the poor among us not to feign shame and brave-endurance in the face of poverty, I will not: I'm poor, I'm on welfare, I smoke cigarettes, and I am not a social parasite.

 Christopher Borges
 159 Orange St. Apt. 3L
 Manchester, NH 03104

Rep. Nick Levasseur who is one of Mr. Borges' reps, replied thoughtfully:

From: Levasseur, Nickolas

Sent: Tuesday, July 03, 2012 12:31 AM

Mr. Borges,

The debate forming here is not focused on whether or not you are a smoker or what you do with "your money". Rather, it is centered on whether or not the tax payer dollars you receive should be spent on non essential items-- which cigarettes certainly are. Indeed, at the heart of the debate is the very question of whether or not those tax payer dollars are truly yours or whether or not the tax payers who provide them are entitled to some say in how they are spent.

This issue is hardly new. However, your story has sparked a new round of public debate. There are many who feel that this long overdue. I, for one, believe that this is an important issue; one that is certainly deserving of the attention it had been receiving. Regardless, the debate has started and it will, like countless other issues, play itself out in the halls of government and public opinion.

I am sorry that you have found yourself at the business end of the outcry on this issue. There are few pains that sting so clear as that of public scorn. Particularly for someone who, unlike many of us, did not choose a public life.

Thank you for taking the time to reach out and tell your side of the story.


Hon. Nickolas J Levasseur
State Representative
Hillsborough District 11
Manchester, Ward 4

Then, I weighed in:

From: Horrigan, Timothy

Sent: Tuesday, July 03, 2012 8:23 AM

EBT cards look and work like regular debit cards, only they are labelled as such. I think that is unfortunate. However, the federal government requires us to label them, and also many stores lack point of sale systems which allow aid recipients to choose between their cash accounts and their food-stamps account.

--Timothy Horrigan

Then Rep. Jack Flanagan replied:

From: Flanagan, Jack

Sent: Tuesday, July 03, 2012 11:52 AM


Nothing personal, but I think the majority of my constituents don't think EBT cards should be used for tobacco products or even liquor. I am sure they are being used for other things that we haven't heard about. I hope to see a bill next Biennium addressing this.


Rep Jack Flanagan
Hillsboro 5
Hollis, Brookline and Mason, NH

The usually mild-mannered Rep. Fred Leonard was moved to an uncharacteristic expression of anger:

From: Leonard, Frederick

Sent: Tuesday, July 03, 2012 12:11 PM

This is enlightening...I had no idea child support and alimony were tied into public assistance EBT cards...these all need to be completely separate!!!...and I'm with Rep Flanagan, the people I represent are off the hook over this issue...if I'm re-elected, they'd have my head on a platter if there wasn't something done about this!

Fred Leonard

Rep. Jeff Oligny (sponsor of David Vandenberg's House Petition) lectured the rest of us about two of his favorite topics, personal responsibility and child support:

From: Oligny, Jeffrey

Sent: Tuesday, July 03, 2012 12:03 PM

I think the point may be getting lost here. My belief is that people should support themselves. I'd like to think that folks on both sides of the aisle agree. Where people need help, we, the society, should help them (government assistance). This help should be remedial and promote rehabilitation toward self-sufficiency, NOT help the individual to "give up" and let society support them unnecessarily. After all, people in need of help should be on the same team as the government, promoting their individual's self-sufficiency and happiness, no?

Without proper controls and feedback for this government assistance, some believe "improper use" happens too often. A critical eye has developed in society as a result, and people are now "judging" others at the checkout counter. What we're facing here is a perception. The perception is that someone is squandering our tax dollars (government assistance) and not engaged in supporting themselves by using an EBT card to buy cigarrettes. Maybe they are and should be stopped. Or maybe they are supporting themselves to the best of their ability and the fact that they used an EBT Card versus cash that they earned is inconsequential.

Regardless, isn't the real issue the public's skepticism over the ability of the government assistance system to promote self-sufficiency and proper use of tax dollars? Maybe we should take a better look at that? If the public was convinced that the system was working properly, providing help where needed, assuring a mutual goal of self-sufficiency and an appropriate use of government tax dollars, we would not be having this discussion.

BTW, this same problem (skepticism from lack of accountability, leading to judgement) exists within our family law system relative to the collection of, disbursment of, and use of, child support dollars. The only difference is that this one helps promote family conflict and hurts our children by putting their parents at war. The upside here is the creation of conflict which creates "jobs" for people to "remedy" the conflict. We have also failed to adequately address this issue. At least we're consistant with this, inaction and apathy. Let's hope next session is more responsive to these concerns. It's time to stpp letting perfection be the enemy of the good and drive some progress to these problems.

Best, Jeff

Hon. Jeffrey D. Oligny
NH State Representative
Hampstead - Plaistow – Kingston
House of Representatives
Children & Family Law Committee

- Due to the large volume of e-mail I receive, I'm unable to respond to all messages personally. Please call me at 205-351-8003 if your message is urgent -

Rep. Donald LeBrun chimed in:

From:LeBrun, Donald

Sent: Tuesday, July 03, 2012 3:39 PM

To put it in a nutshell. We do not owe anyone a lifestyle, we only owe an existence. The rest is the individual responsibility unless they are unable to do so .

Rep. Dan Itse has a reputation for being very far to the right, but he is fairminded and his response was extremely sensible. (He has a disabled son who needs public assistance):

From: Daniel C. Itse

Date: Tuesday, Jul 3, 2012, 6:40 PM

This is not a problem anymore.  EBT cards are going the way of the dodo bird and being replaced with bankcards so that they are indistinguishable by the cashier they will be either a Mastercard or VISA under whatever bank the Feds designate.  The advantage is that we can order medical supplies from the cheapest source including over the internet and don't have to mess about with Medicaid which adds 6 mos. and quadruples to sextuples the cost due to prescription.


Hon. Daniel C. Itse
Chairman, Constitutional Review and Statutory Recodification

(603) 642-9403

LeBrun indignantly fired back:

From: LeBrun, Donald

Sent: Wednesday, July 04, 2012 8:59 AM

How can you say EBT cards are no longer a problem? EBT cards by any name or means of transacting are a problem that needs reform. We only owe an existence, not a lifestyle.

Sent from my iPad

Itse patiently replied:

From: Daniel C. Itse

Sent: Thursday, July 05, 2012 4:20 PM

You are concerned about the last technology, about 18 years old. They are now, issuing new "credit cards" through a commercial bank. In fact, checks will no longer be allowed.


Finally, while researching this piece I found an old email from former Rep. Dick Marple. It contained a scan of a register tape from a grocery store in a small town on the Michigan-Wisconsin border, which apparently proves that EBT cards are being abused 1200 miles to the east in New Hampshire. Someone bought five sixpacks of Mountain Dew as well as some lobsters and steak with their food stamp account. Heaven forfend! Even though no state sales tax was paid, Marple was still scandalized (and he blamed Obama.)

The current food stamp rules date back to the reign of that archliberal President George W. Bush. You can buy anything which is food, as long as it's not prepared food. That includes non-nutritious foods like Diet Mountain Dew, and it also includes nutritious but luxurious foods like steak or lobster. These rules are in place largely because of pressure from retailers and their lobbyists. I might also add that it's not just jobless people who get food stamps: there are some folks with jobs who get them, especially folks with large families.

Marple sent out his email on May 23, 2011. At the time, the rightwing blogosphere was operating on the assumption that some lazy pig was gorging himself on steak and lobster at taxpayer expense while working people were subsisting on rice and beans. In early June, the truth was revealed. The story was broken by a local Fox affiliate, but it has been verified by other sources. A Menominee resident named Lewis Cuff stole his girlfriend's card and used it to buy a cartload of steaks, soda and lobsters which he resold for cash. This was dishonest and highly illegal, not to mention dumb— but Mr. Cuff was not exactly being lazy. He probably used up her benefit for the whole month, by the way.


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