Pennsylvania's top fiscal watchdog says he does not have enough data from the Department of Public Welfare to finish a performance audit of the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) program, but that did not stop him from issuing a scathing report.
"DPW's default position seems to be 'we don't know what is going on, we are not interested in what's going on, and we don't want you or the public to know what's going on,' and that's not good enough for us," said Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner.
Wagner received enough information to know that about 2.5% of the money in the EBT program is transacted out of state, but he says the DPW refuses to hand over specifics. The Department cites privacy concerns. The debit-style cards are used by many welfare recipients to access their cash benefits and food assistance programs.
Wagner said he was hoping that the DPW's history of refusing to turn over important data to his office and ignoring recommendations from audits would change when the new administration came into office, but he said the change in leadership seems to have not made any difference.
"Were EBT cards used to purchase poker chips in Atlantic City? Were they used at tattoo parlors in Baltimore? We don't know. Or were EBT cards used for completely appropriate purposes and uses?" asked Wagner.
Wagner notes that in Pennsylvania, the EBT cards cannot be used in places like liquor stores or casinos, but there are no such controls if they are used in other states.
Wagner stressed that he does not want to use the data to go after specific welfare recipients or businesses and he does not want to use the data to call for cuts in the DPW budget. He said the opposite is true: "People are in desperate need of these programs in Pennsylvania, and if there was ever a time to prove to the public they are properly managed, it is now."
"Because of this lack of transparency, taxpayers will never truly know the cost-effectiveness of social service programs," said Wagner. He does not want misuse of the EBT cards to become a reason for politicians to cut welfare spending.
Wagner's special report included eight recommendations. Among them is a call for the development of an internal review process to monitor EBT card usage, and a recommendation that the DPW establish policies to remove EBT card access to ATMs and point-of-sale card readers that are located in establishments deemed inconsistent with the intent of the social service programs.
The DPW responded to our request for an interview with the following written statement.
"The Department of Public Welfare takes very seriously its responsibility to make sure taxpayer dollars are not being misused and that benefits are only provided to those who are truly eligible. Previous to the Auditor General's announcement, Secretary Alexander had ordered a review of the SNAP Program. Steps have also been taken to review out of state transactions and potentially questionable benefit usage. We continue to work in concert with the Inspector General on these types of matters,"
"With respect to the Auditor General's request, Secretary Alexander is very interested in open and transparent government. We will be working with the Auditor General's office on their request in short course. Therefore, we plan to accommodate the Auditor General to the fullest extent permitted by law."
SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, formerly known as "Food Stamps," are distributed using the EBT cards.