Use And Abuse Of Taxpayer Money
The stories of abuse of federally funded programs can make any taxpayer cringe.Now imagine you were the taxpayer ringing up those who were abusing the system.We talked with a local convenience store clerk who says she sees it almost every day.she chose to conceal her identity for fear of being fired for speaking out…we’ll call her “beth.”It’s a system put in place to do good, but according to Dale Denno, the Director of the Office for Family Independence, not everyone plays by the rule.” I think every single person I’ve spoken with at any political level or any place in the ecosystem of the process believes that we should be making sure the system works so that people who deserve it and play by the rules get the benefits.”As part of the food supplement program, EBT cards are given to those who qualify.With that card, people can only buy food items, but another component of the card exists…it’s known as TANF.Denno explains, “That same debit card used for the food supplement program is also used for TANF, which is a cash benefit…TANF is really just money you can go to an ATM and get cash, so you can use the TANF benefits for anything you can use cash for.”The TANF program was created to allow those who need help to buy things beyond food items, like toilet paper and diapers, but it doesn’t always work out like that.Denno says, “The sad thing is sometimes people use their TANF card unwisely. We can’t legislate smart.”Local convenience store clerk, “Beth”, says she can attest to the “unwise use” of TANF benefits.”I can think of one specific customer who comes in at the beginning of every month and uses her TANF benefits to buy three half gallons of coffee brandy and five cartons of marlboro cigarettes. This is every month. That’s well over 300 dollars.”While those purchases are not illegal, it’s frustrating to watch for a person trying to make ends meet as Beth explains, “I work two jobs, my husband works full time and I paid my taxes a couple weeks ago and it was almost $200 and then I go into work and see people spending 60-70 dollars on Monster energy drinks and candy bars and potato chips when I’m having a hard time buying vegetables and meats for my family.”For Beth, it’s not so much the actual program she’s grown tired of, but the abuse of it, “I’m frustrated. It makes me angry because I don’t mind my tax money going to help people if they’re buying milk, bread, clothes. I have no problem, the economy is really tough and I know people are having a hard time.”But it’s hard to catch all of the people who are out there scamming the system as Denno explains,”A lot of our energies go into training people, our own eligibility staff, to be able to do accurate determinations, to verify info. There’s also working closely with fraud investigation units so that when there is a red flag, even at the application level, if there’s something funny about it, there’s something suspicious there, it gets detected early on and followed up.”But with hundreds of reports of abuse a week and thousands of people taking part in the program, it’s hard for officials to keep up..Currently, there are only nine people on the state’s Fraud Investigation Recovery Team, but a Bill put before the Legislation hopes to add eight more investigators to the team to help fight fraud.Unreported pay and the trading of EBT cards for cash are just two ways people can scam the system, but Denno knows taxpayers are counting on him and his office to maintain the integrity of the program.”We get it, we understand that people expect programs to be run tightly, honestly, straight forwardly, and that’s what we plan to do.”To report abuse of the system, you can call the fraud hotline at 1-866-348-1129 or log onto maine.gov and clink on the Department of Health and Human Services link.