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Welfare programs enter electronic age Recipients to use ATM 'debit card'


The Carroll County Department of Social Services destroye one tie to the old way of distributing welfare as officials shredded food stamps Tuesday.

In front of an elevator in the county's Department of Social Services building in Westminster, Mick Allman of the state Department of Human Resources and Frank Graffagnino of the federal Food and Nutrition Service destroyed hundreds of booklets that represented $168,333.

"All of the stamps are being phased out in the state," said Alex Jones, director of Social Services. "This just happens to be our big day."

The stamps were destroyed as part of a statewide switch to a system that operates like an automated bank teller. The program, called Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT), regulates all benefits of welfare recipients by deducting credits from the recipient's monthly benefits.

"It works just like a debit card from a bank," said David Truax, executive director of the Office of Information Management. "It gets rid of distribution of checks and food stamps for food and nutrition."

Clients are issued "Independence Cards," which will work at ATM machines throughout the state and can be activated for cash by the individual's personal identification number.

The card also is accepted by area merchants whose stores are set up to deduct the spent amount on a "point-of-sale" basis, Mr. Truax said.

The state Department of Social Services celebrated the implementation of the new system Friday at a Giant supermarket in Laurel.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy offered congratulations for the system's success to program coordinator Karen Walker, said Mr. Truax.

"They had a big kick-off Friday. We are issuing well over 95 percent of our benefits this way," Mr. Truax said.

"We are the first state in the United States to implement the program, and we could serve as a model for the country."

Ms. Walker went to the White House Tuesday to talk about the program, Mr. Truax said.

Mr. Jones said the switch from food stamps is the end of an era that began with the distribution of surplus food after the 'N Depression.

"This is actually the third evolution of the program, in my language," Mr. Jones said.

"The program started off giving people surplus food. It was designed to help the farmer as much as the people who got the food, [because] the state Department of Agriculture was buying the food from the farmers for the program.

"We moved to food stamps in 1969 to stimulate the demand side of the economy," he said.

There has been a great demand in Carroll County for the food stamps and other benefits for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

Mr. Jones said $2,304,462 in stamps was issued in Carroll County last year. The county issued $27,397,640 in medical assistance benefits.

"For every one person who applies for AFDC, two apply for food stamps and three apply for medical assistance," Mr. Jones said.

The move to electronic handling of welfare benefits will reduce theft of checks and abuse of the program, said Mr. Truax.

"Generally, the benefits can't be lost or stolen. There are some issues relating to fraud, and we are always looking for ways to eliminate fraud," he said.

Allessandra Owens, a supervisor in the income-maintenance division of the county Department of Social Services, agreed that the Electronic Benefit Transfer system will help both the department and recipients.

"We have had a tremendous amount of mail losses, and this way the client will not have to wait for the check in the mail," said Ms. Owens.

"People also have used food stamps to buy other things instead of food.

"This puts the responsibility on the client now. If they give their card and their PIN [personal identification number], we cannot replace what is used," Ms. Owens said. "It will be their responsibility."

Mr. Allman said the EBT system has been used successfully since November 1989 in the Park Circle district of Baltimore in the state's pilot program. It was instituted in each county after state officials received federal approval last June.

All the food stamps in the state are being destroyed except those in storage in Baltimore that will be used for people moving out of town who still have benefits left on their accounts, he said.

"We are keeping an inventory there because when people move out of state, they can convert their electronic inventory into food stamps," said Mr. Allman.

"Some people would try to spend all the money before they left, but that won't have to happen. It [the supply of stamps] will be available when needed."

Although each state is capable of using the EBT system, new applicants may be given a supplemental check and food stamps until they are trained to use the system, Mr. Truax said.

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