PETERBOROUGH — The media frenzy surrounding the former convenience store clerk who refused to accept a state cash assistance EBT card as payment for cigarettes has caught the eye of Gov. John Lynch and House Speaker Bill O'Brien.
“My goal has been reached here because it's gotten to the people who count,” said 65-year-old Jackie Whiton of Antrim, who lost her job at the Big Apple convenience store on Route 101 on May 31 when she took a stand against what she says is a misuse of taxpayer assistance.
Last week, she made the rounds of local and national print, online sites, television and radio news, spreading her story and speaking to her conviction that there is something fundamentally wrong with the welfare system for doling out cash with no restrictions.
Whiton says she plans to circulate a petition asking the state to change the law and also plans to write Lynch reiterating her position.
Though Lynch has yet to receive a letter from Whiton, upon hearing of her story, he has started meeting with officials from the Department of Health and Human Services, Lynch spokesperson Colin Manning said Thursday.
O'Brien's office has gone a step further by asking to meet with Whiton to hear her account of the incident.
In a statement Friday, O'Brien said that when it comes to assisting “those truly in need, we want to help. But we need to put controls in place to protect against defrauding the system and make sure resources are directed properly.''
State officials are not the only ones reaching out to Whiton. Phone calls and emails from people across the state and the country have been pouring in, and several funds have been started for her benefit, Whiton said Friday.
“I got a letter today from people I don't even know from Derry. The support has been incredible,” she said.
Paul Kerzner of Wolfeboro said Whiton has been the topic of conversation at the local diner, and he wants to get a copy of her petition so that he can circulate it in his area.
“I think what's being done to us taxpayers is horrible,” he said. “I think it's horrible. If people want to support their habits, go out and get a job. To give cash to people, handing them an ATM card is silly.”
Scottsdale, Ariz., conservative blogger Domas Jefferson has started a fund at his website for Whiton and in an email compared her to civil rights champion Rosa Parks.
“Her actions helped bring this issue to the forefront and hopefully this will create a positive change for an inefficient system,” he wrote.
Whiton had worked at the Big Apple for six years when a young man buying cigarettes presented an EBT card for payment.
When she wouldn't accept the card, the man complained to her; he was joined by his foster mother the following day.
Whiton still refused to accept the EBT card for cigarettes.
The next day, the Big Apple home office, C.N. Brown Company, called the store and told her she had to accept the EBT card payment. Instead of complying, she gave two weeks' notice, then was fired the following day.
On Thursday Chick Wilkins, general manager of C.N. Brown Company, defended the company's decision in a written statement.
“We were first alerted to this situation when the customer complained to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. We were notified of the complaint and told that we needed to comply with EBT policy on purchases or we could be terminated from the program.” said Wilkins. “Jackie Whiton was given the opportunity to continue working at Big Apple following her refusal to accept an EBT card for a purchase of tobacco, provided she was compliant with store policy and federal and state regulations regarding the use of EBT cards. Unfortunately she declined to comply, and we had no choice but to let her go for violation of company policy.”
EBT — Electronic Benefit Transfer — 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 instead of mailing recipients checks through the mail.
The federal government has also switched its food stamp program to disburse its benefits through EBT cards. But unlike food stamp benefits, the state cash assistance issued through the EBT cards can be used to purchase anything, including alcohol and cigarettes. Whiton pointed out that the cards can also be used at strip clubs, tanning and nail salons and tattoo parlors. They can also be used to withdraw cash at ATMs.
According to Terry Smith, director of DHHS's Division of Family Assistance, 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.
Restricting where EBT purchases can be made and what for, though, does little good since the user can simply go to an ATM and get cash, Smith said. He added that restricting the state cash assistance program would require more state employees, equipment and expenses in order to enforce those restrictions.