Editorial: Bad Habits and Benefits

Legislation in New Hampshire proposing to regulate what can be purchased with welfare benefits is considered unlikely to become law this year, because the House has decided it needs more study. That’s a wise choice, given that it’s not clear that any careful study has been given to the matter at all.

The bill would have prohibited buying alcohol and tobacco with Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards, or cash obtained with them. Earlier, the Senate passed a version that included lottery tickets, gambling, adult entertainment, firearms and tattoos on the prohibited list, along with alcohol and tobacco.

Although food stamps are also provided through EBTs, which resemble debit cards, what’s at issue here apparently are cash benefits provided to about 13,000 New Hampshire households, including about 3,400 receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and about 7,700 that get aid to the permanently and totally disabled.

Both the Senate and House bills were partially a response to a widely reported incident in 2012 when a convenience-store clerk in Peterborough was fired for refusing to sell someone cigarettes on a EBT card. Legislators were duly outraged. But outside of that anecdote, it does not appear that anyone has any accurate idea of how often these cards are used to purchase items that would be forbidden. Supporters might argue that it doesn’t matter how often an abuse occurs; even one time is too many.

But before enacting a law, it’s a good idea to know whether the problem being addressed is sufficiently acute to justify the costs that would be imposed, and whether the remedy actually addresses the perceived problem. In this case, it appears that enforcement of the prohibition would be a cumbersome affair, one that could fall to clerks in retail stores who might be ill-equipped or reluctant to become welfare-fraud investigators. Alternately, if welfare recipients are required to bring in a shoe box of receipts every time they seek reauthorization of their benefits, the work load of the state Division of Family Assistance would increase, as would the costs of administering the program.

Besides that, new federal regulations already prevent the use of EBTs at liquor stores, gambling establishments or adult entertainment venues. That is, they attempt to regulate where the cards can be used, as opposed to targeting specific products. As opponents of the House bill have pointed out, it might be wise to wait and see how those rules work before adding others.

In any case, a Concord Monitor story about the issue, which appeared in Saturday’s Valley News, contained a very interesting quotation from Rep. Steve Beaudoin, a Rochester Republican who urged his colleagues to pass the bill instead of sending it on for study. “Really?” Beaudoin said. “Should taxpayers be supporting someone’s bad habits?”

Well, probably not. But what about state government? New Hampshire peddles cheap liquor, cigarettes and lottery tickets with reckless abandon because it refuses to enact a broad-based tax sufficient to support the state budget. So in this case, at least, the taxpayers indeed are supporting, and one might even say, fostering bad habits that impoverished residents in particular fall prey to. And, of course, many New Hampshire legislators continue to bring forward proposals to build a casino despite the fact that they have been repeatedly rejected. Talk about bad habits.