Carroll County's public assistance and food stamp recipients, approximately 1,500 of them, didn't get welfare checks or food stamps in the mail this month.
Instead, they got new cards that allow them to withdraw cash from MOST automatic teller machines and pay with plastic at the supermarket.
The conversion "is going very well, considering," said David Ensor, assistant director for income maintenance at the Carroll County Department of Social Services.
He said the staff found only a few glitches, such as incorrect codes entered into the computer.
"I think it will be a lot easier," said William Albaugh, assistant
manager at Myers Super Thrift Market in Union Bridge.
Participating markets and convenience stores now have debit card machines similar to machines used to make credit card purchases.
The cashier puts the new card -- called an "Independence" card -- through the machine, which automatically deducts the purchases from the customer's food stamp account.
Customers receive no change from purchases made with the Independence card, a feature Mr. Albaugh likes. Food stamp customers often used their change to buy items not allowed for )) purchase with food stamps, such as cigarettes, he said.
"It makes it a lot easier for us, because we don't have to tell the customer he can't do that," Mr. Albaugh said.
Clients can buy non-food items at supermarkets with the plastic cards, but the cost of the purchases will be deducted from their public assistance grants rather than from the food stamp allotments, explained Dale Brown, state Department of Human Resources public information officer.
Ms. Brown said Human Resources got strong responses from supermarkets, "Mom and Pop" grocers and convenience stores in Carroll County.
All stores that accepted food stamps in the county were asked to participate in the new program, and at least one food store in each community will accept the Independence cards, she said.
The plastic card idea -- plastic cards to replace benefit checks -- is definitely not a new one. New York City issued cards in 1986 to the city's 500,000 welfare recipients, and the Maryland Department of Human Resources started issuing them to Baltimore welfare recipients in 1989.
The Independence card program now is being phased in across the state, Ms. Brown said.
About 15,000 clients in Howard, Carroll and Harford Counties will begin using the new cards this month, after attending training
sessions on how the cards work.
The cards, training and machines are provided by Deluxe Data Systems, a Wisconsin company that has a $37.6 million, six-year contract to administer the program in Maryland.
Ms. Brown said the plastic cards will save personnel costs, but said she could not estimate savings until the program has been implemented statewide.