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Utah bill: No spending welfare at liquor stores, 'adult' venues

Published February 13, 2013 4:58 pm

HB209 • After abuse reports, the federal government demands tighter controls.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A new bill in the Utah Legislature aims to bar welfare recipients from frittering those funds away at casinos, liquor stores and "adult entertainment venues where employees disrobe."

Utah has not previously restricted how the cash benefit can be spent. And policing such limits has proven a challenge for other states, since the assistance cards can be used to withdraw cash at ATMS for use anywhere.

The bans have been spurred by abuses in other states and by a federal law passed in February 2012. Rep. Derek Brown, R-Cottonwood Heights, explained Utah could lose its federal Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) block grant if it does not follow suit and place similar limits into statute.

"We're trying to dot our i's and cross our t's," said Brown, sponsor of HB209, now in the House rules committee. "It's not our intent to stigmatize TANF recipients."

Utah has no casinos, Brown noted. And many of Utah's recipients under the Family Employment Program are single mothers, unlikely strip club customers.

California has disabled the use of TANF cards at automated teller machines inside 14 types of businesses, from the three listed in HB209 to bail bond offices, bars and race tracks. Others include gun stores, psychic readers, smoke shops, tattoo parlors and massage sites, according to a July 2012 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Texas has eliminated cash assistance access at ATMs; Michigan prohibits the purchase of items considered nonessential to sustaining a household. But states have struggled to enforce their rules, the GAO report found.

Geoffrey Landward, deputy director for Utah's Department of Workforce Services, said he doesn't believe Utah recipients have been using the benefit for the categories in HB209. The Family Employment Program caseload is currently at 2,316, he said, and 91 percent are female.

"We have a pretty intensive program that requires highly motivated individuals," Landward said, noting TANF recipients must spend 30 hours per week in work-related activities, from training to job hunts. Failure to comply eliminates them from the program for a period of time before they can reapply.

"It's a population that isn't prone to abusing the benefit and we haven't had any evidence to suggest there's a problem," Landward said. "But we support the idea of these [federal] restrictions."

However, Landward foresees difficulty enforcing them, especially when cash is withdrawn and used.

"We'll have to come up with creative ways in order to do that," he said, noting that the state is reviewing the restrictions and plans to issue new Morgan Chase benefit cards in the next few months.

Such limits are already in place for food stamp funds, Landward added.

"We just want to be in compliance with federal law," Landward said. "We also want TANF recipients to use the funding for family necessities."

cmckitrick@sltrib.com

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