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More states pursue restrictions on welfare money

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By USA Today
Monday, July 9, 2012, 5:54 p.m.

More states are enacting or considering laws that prohibit people who get welfare cash from spending it on liquor, cigarettes, strip clubs, gambling and guns. Ten states have passed such laws, and at least 14 are considering them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Under a new federal law, all states must prevent the use of cash benefits in liquor stores, gambling establishments and adult entertainment businesses by 2014. States that fail to establish policies face cuts in federal support.

Welfare recipients use debit cards to buy things or get cash at ATMs. A report by the House Ways and Means committee cited news reports in eight states about people with welfare debit cards withdrawing thousands of dollars from ATMs in casinos, liquor stores and strip clubs.

Last year, 4.4 million people received cash benefits ranging from $200 to $1,000 a month, paid by federal and state governments. The federal government share was more than $16.5 billion.

Food stamps pay for food, and welfare cash is supposed to be for nonfood necessities, but states find it difficult to police.

“Until we figure out how to program the machines, it's tough to stop someone from taking cash out of an ATM and buying liquor,” said New York state Sen. Thomas Libous, a Republican from Binghamton. His bill to restrict the use of cash welfare passed the state Senate in June but has not been introduced in the Assembly.

In Louisiana, a stalled bill would have barred ATM cash withdrawals with welfare debit cards and use of the cards in strip clubs or to buy liquor or cigarettes. It would cost $400,000 to reprogram the cards and machines.

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