Good News on the Welfare Front

April 01, 1992

The apparent success of state welfare officials in marrying technology and benefit payments qualifies as one of these rare bright spots in a time of ballooning caseloads and mounting disenchantment with the nation's welfare system.

The program, being expanded statewide, lets recipients withdraw benefits, child support payments, food stamps and other forms of assistance with a plastic card much like those used to tap into bank accounts. Recipients can get cash from teller machines on the MOST system; cards can also be used to buy food at many supermarkets.

Early returns look promising. Recipients like knowing when their benefits will arrive and that they won't be stolen or lost, as was often the case with mailed benefit checks. Merchants like the streamlined system because it frees them from counting and sorting food-stamp coupons. Technology also effectively foils one of the perversities of the welfare system -- the illegal trade of millions of dollars in benefits for guns, drugs and other illicit purchases. In 1990, Montgomery County, burdened with the worst theft rate in the nation, made recipients claim food stamps in person.

This program is a small but important component in the march toward self-sufficiency and a role in society for people on welfare. Concerns about stigmatization of card users in grocery stores have been groundless. Paying for groceries with a debit card, in fact, is a lot more mainstream than counting out food stamps. Another big concern -- that people were being forced into using new and unfamiliar technology -- has been answered by providing training for all who want it.

By year-end, this program will be implemented statewide. It now operates in Baltimore City, Montgomery, Prince George's and Cecil counties with Howard and Anne Arundel to be added this summer. We're anxious to see this happen. Giving recipients plastic cards won't cure what's wrong with welfare. But it goes a long way toward making the system more humane and efficient.

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