Lawmaker: Bright orange needed to make food stamp cards stand out - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

Lawmaker: Bright orange needed to make food stamp cards stand out

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Posted: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 4:14 pm | Updated: 10:25 am, Fri Feb 18, 2011.

It's not quite a scarlet letter.

But a Chandler Republican lawmaker wants the debit cards now given to food stamp recipients to be bright safety orange. And if there's any doubt about the card pulled out of someone's wallet at the checkout, that would be erased with the mandate that there be, in large, black print, the words, "Government Food Stamp Card."

First-term Rep. Jeff Dial said his goal is not to stigmatize those who qualify for the aid, formally known as the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Instead, Dial told Capitol Media Services he wants to prevent fraud.

"If that does concern people that they have a bright orange card, I hope they go get a better education or better jobs and stop using that card," he said.

But what Dial wants to do in his proposal, set for hearing Wednesday before the House Health and Human Services Committee, may be illegal.

The program, funded by the federal government, is designed to help low-income people be able to purchase more nutritious items than their finances might otherwise allow. As of last month, there were more than 431,000 Arizona families getting some assistance.

Any family with an income of less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level - $1,984 a month for a family of three - is eligible, with the amount of help computed according to a formula.

In an example provided by the state Department of Economic Security, which administers the program, a family of three with gross earnings of $946 a month, before taxes and deductions, is entitled to $242 a month in benefits.

At one time food stamps actually were in the form of coupons in various dollar amounts. Now, all states administer it with debit cards.

"It's obviously a big deal now in the state to get rid of any wasteful spending," Dial said.

"It's my understanding that a lot of people - and I don't know the numbers yet - that are taking the food stamp cards are selling them basically, whether it be on Craigslist or to other individuals. I believe they should be used by the intended person and not be used by third parties or be sold for like 50 cents or 25 cents on the dollar."

Dial said the bright orange color and bold lettering would make it "very clear" what the card is. That, in turn would direct the retailer to demand additional identification proving that the person presenting the card is, in fact, the legitimate holder.

"We want people to take a very close look at that card and make sure that the person that's using that card matches up by ID as well as by photo so we can get rid of that wasteful spending," Dial said.

But DES spokesman Steve Meissner said various federal regulations likely preclude what Dial wants.

For example, it says users of the debit cards should not be singled out for "special treatment" as compared to any other shopper. A bright orange card, Meissner said, could run afoul of that.

Meissner said that a requirement for retailers to ask for photo ID to compare with the name on the card definitely would violate federal anti-discrimination rules, particularly as users have their own unique PIN number.

It is legal, Meissner said, to require the state as the card issuer to put the name or photograph of all household recipients and their authorized representatives on the debit cards. But he said there are practical considerations which could force DES to have to issue more than one debit card for each household.

Dial said the fact that funding comes not out of the state budget but from the federal government does not reduce his desire to curtail fraud.

"What it comes to is, we're all paying taxes to the federal government," he said, with the state only administering the program. "It may not be coming out of our budget. But we should be good custodians."

As to questions of misuse of the cards, DES officials said three of 49 investigators it has on staff are devoted strictly to tracking down food stamp fraud. The agency said the new fraud unit, set up last year, does not have figures of how much was saved through its activities.

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