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‘Dignity Card’ Helps Strip the Stigma From Food Stamp Use

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the more than five years Sandra Baker has been receiving welfare, she has had to sift through the paper currency of her monthly food stamp allowance to purchase items at her local grocery store, often causing a traffic jam of shoppers behind her.

But since Nov. 1, Baker, a 37-year-old single mother of two teenagers in Adelanto, has been able to swipe her California Electronic Temporary Assistance Card (Cal Etac) through the point-of-sale terminal at her grocer’s register and whisk through the checkout lane. No longer does she worry about thumbing through the coupon booklet of that most recognizable symbol of being on public assistance.

Baker is one of nearly 11,000 food stamp recipients in the Victorville and Hesperia area of San Bernardino County who are the first group in California to use the newly established Electronic Benefits Transfer.

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The system is an extension of the federal welfare reform law that attempts to streamline the allocation of benefits. It replaces paper food stamps with an ATM-like electronic card that is used like debit cards, which shoppers can pay with by swiping through terminals and entering a personally selected identification number.

By the end of March 1998, the 64,000 families and individuals who receive food stamps across San Bernardino County will be able to access the new system at the nearly 800 retail locations where paper food stamps are now accepted. San Diego County plans to implement its electronic system in April. The federally mandated roll-out date for all of California is Oct. 1, 2002.

Dubbed the “dignity card” because it removes the stigma associated with receiving aid, the item is virtually indistinguishable from an ordinary bank card.

San Bernardino County officials predict that it will be a boon for the public and private sectors in several ways.

The county will save as much as $300,000 that has been spent annually to print, process and collect the old coupons, said John Michaelson, a San Bernardino County social service administrator.

Michaelson, a former food stamp recipient himself, has been working to get the county’s system online since 1991. He said there is a need to improve methods for allocating benefits.

“I’ve called it one of those rare opportunities in government,” he said. “We’ve cut costs to taxpayers and grocers, and we’re seeing a higher level of service.”

In addition to ensuring a steady flow of shoppers through the checkout lanes, the new system means retailers’ overhead for handling and redeeming food coupons will be reduced. Also, banks will no longer have to count and process food coupons for redemption.

But perhaps most important, the system will provide better security against the trade of paper food stamps for cash. Under the new program, an “electronic trail” can track a recipient’s use of food stamp benefits, said Corinne Chee, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Social Services.

“It will reduce fraud, because it will give records of transactions,” she said.

Every time the card is used, a receipt of the food items purchased is printed, documenting the time, date, origin of transaction and the remaining account balance.

Shannon Hackworth, 24, a single Victorville mother of three young boys, said she feels more secure now that her benefits are better protected. “If you had food stamps and somebody stole them, they could use them. But with the card, they need to know your PIN [personal identification number] or they won’t be able to use it,” she said.

Under the new program, all recipients are notified to come to their local welfare office, where they get the card, choose a four-digit PIN and receive training on how to use the card and PIN. Food stamp allowances are then credited to the recipient’s account by the first of each month. A 24-hour hotline is also available to address any questions or problems, Chee said.

Currently, 23 other states allocate benefits electronically.

In 1982, Reading, Pa., became the first city to use the Electronic Benefits Transfer system to allocate food stamp aid, as a federally funded pilot program.

Today, about 10,000 Berks County recipients rely on the system to receive food stamps, cash aid and medical assistance benefits.

“It’s clearly a win-win for everybody. It’s far more convenient for recipients and retailers,” said Mary Ellen Fritz of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.


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