PETERBOROUGH - Jackie Whiton's stand against what she sees as a misuse of state assistance has become a national story.
“I've had so much support it's been overwhelming,” she said in her Antrim home Wednesday night as she prepared to go on FOX news this morning.
A former employee of the Big Apple convenience store in Peterborough, Whiton was fired after she refused to accept Electronic Benefit Transfer cards as payment for cigarettes. She is now collecting signatures for a petition protesting how the state aid program is run, and plans to lobby the governor.
“Somebody told me to call Welfare Fraud and I said absolutely not. This is not fraud. They allow this to happen,” she said of the state.
EBT cards are issued to recipients of the Department of Health and Human Services Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF program. In the mid-1990s, the Department of Health and Human Services started issuing the cards. Before that people received a check.
EBT benefits or state assistance money can be used to purchase anything, including alcohol and cigarettes. The cards can be used at strip clubs, tanning and nail salons and tattoo parlors, Whiton said.
“They can get cash out of an ATM with those,” she said.
No state in the country has restrictions on how cash benefits can be spent, according to Terry Smith, director of DHHS Division of Family Assistance.
“That's pretty much the law of the land; it's not just New Hampshire,” he said.
About 14,000 households received monthly cash benefits from the state last year, a total of $36 million.
More than 56,000 households received food stamp assistance, which are overseen by the federal government, according to Smith. Smith said the federal government trains store employees on the restrictions of the food stamp EBT cards and then monitors stores and individual use to enforce those restrictions.
If the state were to enact restrictions on how cash assistance is spent, DHHS would have to set up a costly infrastructure to monitor use, Smith said. “We'd need more staff, travel budgets,” he said.Fired from market
Whiton said she had worked at the market six years.
“What happened was, a young man came in and wanted to buy cigarettes and I asked him for his ID and he handed me his EBT card. I told him he couldn't buy them with the card and he said yes he could.”
The following day, the foster mother of the man, who Whiton estimates to be about 20, came into the convenience store to complain.
Whiton still refused to accept the EBT card for cigarettes, so the woman went to her boss, she said.
“The next day I got a call from the home office and they said I have to sell to him and I said at 65 years old, I don't have to do anything I don't want to do. I said I would bow out gracefully and gave my two weeks' notice. The next day they fired me,” Whiton said.
She added it was the head office C.N. Brown Co., not her manager in Peterborough, who fired her.
“This is what the taxpayer's hard-earned dollars are going toward,” she said. “There are a few people of course who are against me, and they are probably card holders.”Enforcing the rules
Whiton said she plans to send her petition to the governor, asking the state to dissolve the “cash cards.”
“I am not against the EBT (food stamp) grocery cards. I am not,” she said. “But a woman can't even buy toilet paper or tampons with those.”
A new federal law requires states to prohibit in the next two years the use of the EBT “cash cards” at liquor stores, casinos and adult entertainment venues, Smith said.
In light of the new federal law, DHHS went back and looked at EBT card use in May and found that not one card was used at a liquor store that month. That doesn't mean a person in the program didn't go to an ATM, withdraw cash and then purchase liquor with the state assistance money, Smith said.Who gets the help?
The TANF program is set up to help people who are at or under 43 percent of the poverty level.
A single mother with two children and no income can receive up to $675 a month, for example.
“Are some people being irresponsible? I expect so. But there is not a lot of money to be irresponsible with,” Smith said.
TANF is set up to encourage people to find work and move off assistance.
“New Hampshire has the highest work participation in the Northeast and I think we come in 10th in the country in having people in work activities,” Smith said.
He said restricting the EBT purchases would not stop irresponsible spending, since users could simply go to an ATM and get cash.
- - - - - - - -Meghan Pierce may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.