A month after Howard County welfare and food stamp recipients began receiving their social service benefits electronically, the system has received high marks from cardholders and merchants.
The three-year-old program, which began in Baltimore and will be in place statewide by spring, replaces monthly welfare checks and food stamp coupons with a plastic card.
The card allows recipients to collect their cash benefits at automated teller machines and buy food at grocery stores, just as they have done using food stamps.
The "Independence" cards became available in Howard County on Sept. 1. By Nov. 1, 4,000 people will be using them.
Cardholders know when their benefits will arrive each month and don't have to worry about lost or stolen food stamps.
Cashiers at grocery and convenience stores throughout the county say the cards eliminate the tedious job of counting food stamps to pay for purchases. Fifty-one outlets in Howard have been equipped with the "point of sale" machines that electronically record food purchased with the cards.
"It's safer than food stamps and you don't have to sit around waiting for the mailman on the first of the month," said a welfare and food stamp recipient from Columbia who asked not to be named.
An Elkridge woman said that using food stamps was "embarrassing" and prefers the convenience of the card.
"The young people like it because they're accustomed to charge cards and computers, but we have one grandmother who's not willing to use it," said Jeanett Fambro, a community worker with Community Action Council, a private human services agency.
If the woman doesn't become comfortable using the card, she may have to go back to using food stamps, Ms. Fambro said.
Betty Eggleston, director of the income maintenance division in the county's Department of Social Services, said she has received no complaints about the cards.
The cards, which were introduced in the Park Circle section of Baltimore in 1989, have been issued to 70,000 benefit recipients statewide. By next spring, when the card distribution is completed statewide, 200,000 people will be using them.
In addition to being more convenient for benefit recipients, the cards cut down on the selling of food stamp coupons for non-food purchases, said Dale Brown, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Human Resources. And, she said, the cards are safer, since each recipient is assigned a secret code.
At least one scam using the cards has been discovered, Ms. Brown said. Officials found that to get cash for food stamp coupons, a cardholder would get behind someone in line at the grocery store and offer to let the person use the card to pay for the groceries in exchange for cash.
In order to use the cards, welfare and food stamp clients must attend training sessions offered by the county department of Social Services.
A magnetic strip on the Independence card contains client benefits for Aid to Families with Dependent Children or General Public Assistance. The amount of food stamp benefits are also contained in computer code on the card.
Cash benefits for recipients of AFDC or public assistance are deposited into individual bank accounts the same day each month. The benefits are available to clients through bank machines connected to the MOST network at 9 a.m. that morning.
The system allows clients to withdraw the amount of money they need at a given time.
Food purchases are charged against the card's food stamp account, which is separate from the cash benefits account.