BENEFITS: PAPER OR PLASTIC?

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Next month, the long-delayed debit card system for welfare benefits and food stamps is due to come on-line in Staten Island. The program–two years in the making–is supposed to bring the conveniences of plastic to poor people, free them from depending on check cashers and save the state government some $30 million a year in processing costs to boot.

But advocates charge that the system is for the ‘burbs, set up to rely on cash machines and supermarkets–two things in short supply in poor urban neighborhoods.

The system, called electronic benefits transfer, switches food stamps and welfare checks to a debit card system. People getting welfare will use a regular bank cash machine to get their cash benefits, rather than getting a check. Food stamp recipients will be able to use a debit card at grocery stores. Nationwide, about half of all food stamps are now delivered this way.

New York City welfare advocates say that the system, scheduled to be expanded citywide by the end of the year, is too suburban in its design: Many poor neighborhoods have few or no cash machines, and fewer plastic-friendly chain supermarkets: For example, there’s only one supermarket for 63,000 people in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Small greengrocers and bodegas may not be able to afford the electronic equipment needed to process purchases made with the new cards.

Welfare recipients will be able to use cash machines up to four times a month without a fee from the state, but many city banks impose their own $1 or $1.50 surcharge, a fee that advocates say poor people shouldn’t have to swallow.

“Our position is that poor people shouldn’t be paying for New York State to adopt a high tech system,” explained Liz Krueger of the Community Food Resource Center (CFRC), which has been monitoring the program’s start-up.

“Right now, in Staten Island, we have plenty of ATMs available, and plenty of cash access points,” countered John Madden, a spokesperson for the Office for Temporary and Disability Assistance of the state social services department. “We’ll work to resolve those problems. We are taking that into account, that there are a lot of neighborhoods without ATMs.”

Advocates from the CFRC and other city organizations have called for a longer pilot period, more help for recipients as they make the shift from paper to plastic, and a careful evaluation of the pilot program before it is expanded from Staten Island’s small population of 16,000 public assistance recipients to the more than one million people getting food stamps citywide.