By Rob Port | Special to Watchdog.org
BISMARCK, ND — Welfare recipients in North Dakota used their benefits debit cards for movie rentals, fast food, convenience items at gas stations, fuel, and at drug stores and restaurants. But mostly they used their cards to get cash: More than 27 percent of all benefits flowed through the government-supplied benefits cards in the form of cash withdrawals.
The state Department of Human Services provided that information in response to my Freedom of Information Act request.
I’ve written before of my efforts to review how North Dakota Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, or welfare) recipients spend their benefits. After initially telling me that the transaction data isn’t kept, the state DHS Department now says the data is indeed maintained — but is protected by federal privacy laws.
“Going into individual personal transactions of bank customers is against the Privacy Act,” Carol Cartledge, director of Economic Assistance Policy Division for the ND DHS, told me in an email.
Please note that I didn’t request information about beneficiaries but rather information about where beneficiaries spent their money.
The state’s continuing stall on my request is strange. We read stories all the time about this very same transaction data being obtained by reporters in other states. They find that significant welfare dollars are being spent in ways that are probably inconsistent with the intended scope of the program, such as in strip clubs or liquor stores.
If federal law prohibits access to that data, how can reporters and researchers in other states get it? If the data is out-of-bounds, how is the state enforcing the proper expenditure of these dollars in North Dakota?
There aren’t a lot of answers coming from DHS, but I’m still working on it. In the meantime, they did provide me this category breakdown of TANF debit card (also known as Electronic Benefit Transfer or EBT transactions) — though they won’t provide me with the total dollar figure represented by these percentages or a per-category dollar break down.
So, while we can see that a little more than 4 percent of the dollars spent through EBT transactions were for movie rentals, we have no idea how much that is in actual dollars, and DHS isn’t offering any answers.
- ATM/Cash withdrawals at the bank: 27.66%
- Grocery Stores: 19.67%
- Service Stations (inside): 19.27%
- Fast Food Restaurants: 12.40%
- Discount Stores: 6.50%
- Service Stations (outside): 4.31%
- Restaurants: 4.09%
- DVD/Video Rentals: 4.02%
- Drug Stores & Pharmacies: 2.08%
Notice, also, that the biggest percentage here is cash withdrawals at ATMs and banks. That might not be in and of itself objectionable, but where are these ATMs? And where was the cash spent? In bars and liquor stores.
We don’t know, and again DHS isn’t giving up the information.
I’m not done digging, but so far it seems the oversight of welfare dollars in North Dakota is disturbingly lax.
Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.