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.