Photo ids: What’s wrong with this picture?

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By Al Norman

In hard financial times, people are driven to do things that they would not ordinarily do. This goes not just for low-income folks struggling to make ends meet financially — but also for state officials looking to respond to charges of fraud and abuse in our public assistance support system.

Case in point: putting photo identification on electronic benefit cards, or EBTs.

alnorman_headshotIn late June, the General Court on Beacon Hill was crafting legislation to deal with the highly publicized issue of welfare fraud and abuse. During debate in the senate, lawmakers included a provision requiring that EBTs carry photo IDs. For homebound elders and individuals with disabilities, a photo requirement on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP/food stamp) cards presented two major challenges — getting out to have a photo taken and being able to have families and caregivers use the card on behalf of a homebound recipient.

A coalition of elder advocacy groups, led by AARP Massachusetts, objected to the mandated photos and send a letter to the senate arguing in part:

“The current proposal of adding a photo identification on the SNAP card would create a burden on vulnerable older residents, many of whom may rely on others to purchase their food or would need to travel to a site for recertification and to obtain the identification. We believe that government has a responsibility to design and implement programs in ways that promote rather than discourage, participation by all who are eligible, including legal, noncitizen residents … In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, over 45 percent of all SNAP households include one or more elder or disabled member.”

During floor debate, the senate added an amendment offered by Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton. Her amendment requires the state to exempt the following groups from the photo ID requirement:

•Applicants and recipients of Supplemental Security Income who apply through the Social Security Administration;

•Applicants and recipients who apply through the simplified elder application and for whom the state has granted a waiver of the face-to-face interview due to a hardship;

•Residents of group homes for the blind or disabled;

•Individuals in residential substance abuse treatment programs whose benefits are paid through authorized representatives and individuals and agencies designated as authorized representatives for persons who are elderly, blind or disabled.

The Creem amendment also authorized the state to issue “an electronic benefits transfer card that is authorized to be used without photo identification.” Finally, the Creem amendment requires the state to identify any current cardholder who may have barriers to complying with such requirement, including but not limited to cardholders who are elderly or disabled, cardholders residing in group homes or other residential treatment settings, or cardholders who rely on family members or an authorized representative to assist them …” and to “promulgate regulations to ensure that such barriers do not prevent such individuals from receiving benefits …”

One state senator, who clearly was not thrilled with the idea of putting photos on EBTs, told me that she was approached one time in a grocery store by someone who offered to sell her a food stamp card at half of its value. This isn’t just a sign of fraud — it’s a sign of desperation. We still have thousands of seniors in this state who need SNAP cards to help put food in the table. We need to make sure that we don’t make them feel like criminals with ID cards that stigmatize them for being poor. And we need to make sure their family and paid caregivers can use the cards if the elder is homebound.

Al Norman is the executive director of Mass Home Care. He can be reached at 978-502-3794, or at info@masshomecare.org