Stranded in the Heights

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While state and banking officials trumpet the cost-cutting results of the new Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system, poor New Yorkers getting their food stamps and cash welfare benefits with their new plastic cards wonder if they’re the ones paying the price.

Washington Heights, for example, has one of the highest concentrations of welfare recipients in the city. Yet cash access in the neighborhood is much more limited than state and banking officials have promised.

On its web site, the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance lists 47 stores and groceries in northern Washington Heights that accept the EBT card for both food and cash benefits. But a City Limits survey of 21 of those stores raises significant questions about the state’s claims. While all but one of the stores do in fact accept EBT cards for food stamp purchases, 11 of them–more than 50 percent–do not currently allow customers to access their cash benefits. Customers can use their cards to buy food, but they can’t withdraw money to buy clothes or pay bills.

The 10 merchants who did offer cash benefits say that they limit the amount available and that they often do not have any cash for customers at all.

The owner of Bani Grocery Store, at 126 Nagle Avenue, says that he hasn’t given out much cash to customers. “Why would people come here for cash?” he asked. “We only offer $25, and most people need more than that to pay their bills.”

In addition, eight of the 21 stores had no visible sign advertising EBT.

Sarah Ludwig, director of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, is convinced that the state’s list of ATMs is deliberately misleading, because it lists sites that don’t actually offer cash. “There’s a total misrepresentation about which locations are actually cash access sites,” she claims. “Some of those listed require a purchase; others charge a fee.”

Customers who do find a store with cash access may then be stuck paying a fee. “For a single person who receives the standard $352 a month in benefits–barely enough to live on–he or she might make four separate withdrawals,” explains caseworker Jenny Socorro of Seniors Helping Seniors, which offers assistance to poor elderly people. “That’s $8 to $10 in fees they didn’t have to pay before.”

State and Citibank officials failed to return calls for comment.