Carroll welfare recipients will find themselves paying with plastic instead of paper when the state switches next year to a system much like an automated teller card.
The program, called Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT, has been used successfully in the Park Circle area of Baltimore since 1989 and is to expand statewide and serve as amodel for the country.
It will begin spreading outward this fall, probably making its way to Carroll County by spring, said Stanley P. Frerking, executive director of the Office of Information Management for the state Department of Human Resources.
About 2,000 households in Carroll would usethe system, said David Ensor, assistant director of the Carroll Department of Social Services.
The new system was Frerking's brainchild and is serving as a pilot project for the U.S. Office of Managementand Budget to show to all 50 states if it works in Maryland. So far,it's working, Frerking said, and clients love it.
"I don't need to sell the system (to welfare clients)," he said. "They do it themselves. We just haven't had any resistance."
People who receive welfare, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, food stamps and child support payments will use the system, as long as those payments are made through the Carroll DSS.
Frerking said that with EBT, the clientno longer has to worry about carrying around large amounts of cash that can be stolen or lost, losing the check in the mail, finding a place to cash the check or paying a fee for the cashing privilege.
The program also would reduce food-stamp misuse and fraud, in which people sell their food stamps for a smaller amount of cash, Frerking said.
The system works like this:
* Clients get a card thatlooks like an automated teller machine card and choose a secret four-digit number.
* To get cash from an AFDC, welfare or child support account, the client only needs to go to any MOST automated bank machine and withdraw as much cash as needed, up to the account balance. A receipt lets him or her know the balance.
* To buy food through the food stamp account, the person shows the card to the cashier in any grocery store connected to the DHR computer system. The client punches the personal identification number into a keyboard connected to the cash register and the computer system, provided by DHR.
* Most cash registers automatically will keep track of products allowed by food stamps and the non-food items for which the person must pay cash; some stores with less sophisticated cash registers will have to continue ringing up the items separately.
A receipt will let the client knowhow much food-stamp credit is left.
* Through the grocery store, clients also will have access to cash from their welfare, AFDC or child support accounts, in a manner similar to other customers cashing personal checks.
"It's security for the client," Ensor said, likening the process to direct deposit of payroll or Social Security checks.
It will eliminate loss or theft problems and reduce the amountofpaperwork and tedious counting done by DSS employees and the commercial banks where food stamps are stored.
Also, homeless people who now have to go to the DSS offices to pick up their checks no longer will have to make that trip, Ensor said. Their benefits are as close as the nearest MOST machine or grocery store, he said.
Some clientswill have to make a psychological adjustment, he said, dealing with the machines instead of the physical reality of a check or book of food stamps.
"Probably where you're going to find some difficulty will be with the elderly population," he said.
But education and training will be provided for all clients before they have to use the new system, he said.
In Park Circle, retired schoolteachers were hired to train clients, Frerking said. The retired teachers were good atspotting people who weren't catching on and taking them aside for anindividual, hands-on demonstration.
In addition to hiring former schoolteachers to train clients, TransFirst, the Dallas-based firm hired by DHR to implement the system, also will train workers and install the keyboards at some 6,000 grocery stores in the state and several banks, Frerking said.
Frerking said TransFirst is paid $1.90 to $2.70 per household account. The contract saves money over the cost of all the personnel and paperwork required without such a system, he said. The statewide savings are estimated at $1.2 million annually.
But he and Ensor said the state expects no reduction of staff as a result of EBT. Rather, workers will have different duties, they said.
Some grocers in the county have heard about the new system and are looking forward to it.
"I think it's a good idea," said Neal Roop, owner of Roop's Grocery in New Windsor.
He said the system would ensure that every penny of the food stamps would be used for food. Some recipients use the coin change for cigarettes and other items the stamps can't buy, he said.
"With food stamps, you spend a lot oftime in the office recounting them," said William Ferencz, manager of the Westminster Co-op grocery. "I don't know what they make them out of, but they stick together like hell."
The Giant Food store in Park Circle already is using the system, and the company's vice president for public affairs, Barry Scher, said it has been an unqualifiedsuccess with both employees and the food stamp customers. Giant justopened a 58,000-square-foot store in Westminster.
"The key ingredient to making it successful has been the education of the benefits recipients (and store personnel)," Scher said. "We think this is the wave of the future. It saves time, saves paperwork. I honestly can't think of any drawbacks."
Frerking said he would like to put machines in housing developments so that residents can pay rent through a transfer, eliminating the need to carry a large amount of cash to the rental office.