The Washington Post recently ran a series of articles purporting to explain how welfare benefits are spent in America. They open with ledes like “Poverty looks pretty great if you’re not living in it,” and “There’s nothing fun about being on welfare, and a new Kansas bill aims to keep it that way.” The idea behind such pieces is to provide a counter-narrative to the “suspicion” that the poor use food stamps and other government benefits to buy luxury goods like lobster and filet mignon.
Absent from the Post’s coverage is clear, convincing data about how much abuse takes place when it comes to welfare spending. They skirt the obvious question: Can anything be done to ensure that taxpayer funds are spent more responsibly?
For Watchdog.org, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
The Post’s stories were prompted by welfare reform bills in statehouses, such as House Bill 2258 in Kansas, which tightened restrictions on government assistance. In short, it means no more spending welfare funds on movies, gambling, or tattoos.
What drew lawmakers’ attention to welfare abuse in the first place? The story was nowhere until Kansas Watchdog began reporting on the issue in 2013. When reporter Travis Perry first investigated trends in the state’s distribution of funds from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, he was stonewalled and told that his request for records posed “an unreasonable burden on agency resources.”
Asking for such information was well within reason, especially since rumors of welfare fraud at the time had already prompted investigations in New York and Tennessee. Perry kept digging into the story, and eventually was able to expose thousands of abusive transactions where welfare cash had been withdrawn at liquor stores, smoke shops, casinos and strip clubs. In all, he calculated that Kansas residents receiving assistance through TANF spent about $43,000 on potentially-illicit goods and services from August to October of 2012.
Kansas law prohibits the use of government assistance to purchase alcohol, tobacco, or lottery tickets. But the rule is more bark than bite because most businesses that cannot process EBT cards conveniently have an ATM location nearby, allowing welfare recipients to skirt the law with ease.
Just a few months after Kansas Watchdog exposed the poor enforcement of the law, Watchdog.org’s Tennessee bureau found itself facing a similar situation. In response to Tennessee Watchdog stories detailing a plethora of questionable EBT transactions, Governor Bill Haslam signed legislation into law prohibiting the use of EBT cards at adult establishments like liquor stores and strip clubs. But when Tennessee Watchdog followed-up on the story, reporter Chris Butler found that the law had been slow to go into effect – the owner of a Memphis liquor store, for instance, hadn’t even been notified of the new law!
Not all news has been discouraging, however. Many of Watchdog.org’s reports on welfare spending have led to more promising government action. Last year, for example, Colorado Watchdog published a series of stories showing that withdrawals from ATMs at casinos, liquor stores, and strip bars were still happening even though both federal and state laws prohibit it. Worse, Colorado Watchdog also discovered that welfare recipients had withdrawn money at pot shop ATMs and out of state in places like Las Vegas, Hawaii, and the Virgin Islands. All in all these abuses totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the stories prompted a federal review of whether the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) is doing enough to stop them.
The state legislature soon acted to curb the abuse, introducing bills that would help keep CDHS more accountable by requiring it to regularly report illegal withdrawals to lawmakers. Businesses would be required to post a sign near ATMs saying welfare withdrawals are prohibited at their establishments, and owners of businesses or ATMs could face penalties if they do not act to stop the abuses.
Kansas, Tennessee, and Colorado do not represent isolated incidents. Watchdog.org has uncovered similar stories across the rest of the country, such as New Mexico, Iowa, and Texas. In each state, these stories represent a textbook case of what Watchdog.org was created to do – shine a light on abuse so that our government can do better. And now after years of faithfully reporting on the issue of welfare abuse, the national conversation is finally starting to turn. Legacy media outlets like The Washington Post may attempt to take the moral high ground and dismiss efforts at reform, but they only tell part of the story. These states ultimately acted to make better use of their tax dollars because Watchdog.org dared to undertake a grueling investigation and fearlessly report the facts.