On Tuesday, Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) released data on purchases made with state welfare benefits that he claimed exposed abuse, but they only add up to less than a percent of all benefit transactions.
The data show that there were more than 3,000 transactions at bars, sports bars, and strip clubs made with EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards loaded with TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or welfare) and food stamp benefits between January 1, 2011 and November 15, 2013. The state doesn’t track what was actually purchased, and some transactions can be withdrawals from ATMs at those locations. Given that there are about 50,000 of these transactions every month, or nearly 1.8 million in that time frame, as the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) spokesman told the Bangor Daily News, they only make up “about two-tenths of 1 percent of total purchases and ATM withdrawals,” the paper calculates.
LePage still expressed outrage at this tiny fraction of purchases. “This information is eye-opening and indicates a larger problem than initially thought,” he wrote when the data was released. “These benefits are supposed to help families, children and our most vulnerable Mainers. Instead, we have discovered welfare benefits are paying for alcohol, cigarettes and other things that hardworking taxpayers should not be footing the bill for.” When the Bangor Daily News asked his spokeswoman about the small number of transactions, she responded, “Any amount of abuse in the system that takes away from the truly needy needs to be dealt with,” adding, “We’re not uncovering anything new. There are always going to be bad actors out there. We’re simply saying, ‘We’ve got an eye on you.’”
His spokeswoman also said that he will sponsor a bill to address issues with welfare benefits during this year’s session, including the fact that the state doesn’t track what recipients buy.
If LePage is seeking to paint welfare recipients as wasteful spenders who blow their money on alcohol and cigarettes, the data are not on his side. Nationally, those who receive public benefits such as welfare cash assistance, food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid, and others spend a bigger portion of their budgets on basics like food, housing, and transportation than those who aren’t enrolled in these programs. They also spend less on eating out and entertainment. Overall, families who rely on government programs spend less than half of what families who don’t rely on them spend.
LePage has made other controversial statements and decisions when it comes to the poor or less fortunate residents of his state. He claimed that 47 percent of Mainers don’t work, despite the fact that 65 percent are working or actively seeking a job while the remaining percentage is mostly made up of retirees, the disabled, students, and homemakers. He exhorted all able-bodied residents to “get off the couch and get yourself a job” in 2012 despite high unemployment rates and few job openings. After he pushed for a five-year cap on welfare benefits, more than 1,500 families with an estimated 2,700 children lost the assistance. Even his plan to simply relocate the state’s DHHS office was controversial, as he wants to move it from downtown Portland to a location in South Portland that is difficult to reach and could restrict the poor’s access to social services.