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House Budget punishes low income welfare recipients; Governor questions motive of welfare critics

It is with a heavy heart that we report to you the proposed changes in the Massachusetts welfare law that were adopted very late last night (11:54 PM) during the FY2013 House budget deliberations. Social service, labor, health care and advocacy organizations will be working hard in the next few weeks to educate both branches of the Legislature on how unworkable and punitive these measures are and urge them to not allow these provisions to become law. Outside Section 35 of the House Ways and Means budget was an unmitigated disaster. The additional amendment adopted on the House Floor last night made many of those proposed changes far worse for low income women and their children.  
We will be sending on additional information, fact sheets and action steps in the next few days.  Below is a summary of the EBT restrictions in the House budget (Outside Section 35, as amended) from my MLRI colleague, Deborah Harris. The Senate budget is currently being developed and expected to be finished in the next two weeks. Calls to your State Senators - to educate them how difficult and unworkable many of these provisions are - is critical! 

1.     A version of Section 35’s ban on using cash assistance benefits held on EBT cards to buy particular products or services. This version has some but not all of the corrections to Section 35 that were in the Toomey amendment and some additions that make it worse than Section 35.  Prohibited products and services include:

a.     Cosmetics—defined( in language that they should have been embarrassed about) to include “articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body or any part thereof for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance, and (2) articles intended for use as a component of any such articles; provided, however, that cosmetics shall not include soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, or other personal hygiene products.”  Shaving cream and a razor would be prohibited as well as chap stick and of course lipstick, and coverup for teenage acne.

b.     Admission to any performance other than a school or nonprofit performance.  Going to a movie, or paying for your child go to a movie would be prohibited. A concert by any entity other than a school or nonprofit would be prohibited.

c.     Professional services other than health services, haircutting and funerals. Lawyer services would be prohibited. It would be a violation to use one’s benefits to pay a lawyer to defend against an eviction, for example.

d.     Jewelry

e.     Rental of any goods or real property except for the primary residence. Families leaving shelter for housing who cannot access donated furniture would have to make their kids sleep on the floor, sometimes with rats and roaches.

2.     Businesses that offer for sale any prohibited service or product have to post a sign advising patrons of the excluded products.

3.     In addition, the House EBT amendment adds additional types of businesses that are prohibited from housing an ATM or any other device that would allow recipients to access cash.  This prohibition includes any place a performance  or sporting event takes place, rent-to-own businesses, jewelry stores, and cruise ships.  

4.     Cash assistance benefits may only be accessed in Massachusetts or a border state.

5.     A recipient who makes a prohibited purchase shall be disqualified for three months for the first violation (generally about $300, even for a $1 prohibited purchase), and permanently for a second offense.

6.     Businesses are subject to fines up to $10,000 for accepting cash EBT in violation of the law.