Low-income Virginia residents would be barred from spending welfare money on alcohol, cigarettes, lottery tickets and strip clubs under a proposal one Republican lawmaker is pushing.
While food stamp recipients have restrictions on how they use their benefits, those who receive money through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program can use those funds as they see fit in Virginia. Del. Riley Ingram, R-Hopewell, proposed a bill to keep beneficiaries from making purchases with that money at state-run liquor stores, and on tobacco products, any form of gambling or strip clubs.
"They may need clothes, they may need food, they may need a highchair for a baby or a piece of furniture, so I didn't eliminate any of that," Ingram said. "But with Virginia tax money, they shouldn't be using it for booze and cigarettes and wine and everything else."
Federal legislation passed last year already has placed some restrictions on alcohol, gambling and strip clubs. Those measures have not gone into effect yet. Ingram's bill expands on them to include tobacco products and safeguards against Congress removing the restrictions.
Implementing the bill, however, would be difficult. Unlike food stamps, which are placed into an account linked to a debit card, TANF benefits are sent via check or direct deposited into private bank accounts. Therefore, the state can't track how the money is spent or block certain purchases.
"We're still evaluating how we can enforce this," said Tom Steinhauser, director of benefit programs at the Department of Social Services. The state could switch to the same system as the food stamp program, "but that would be a pretty expensive option," he added.
The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program is designed to assist poor children and their parents. There are about 66,000 recipients in Virginia at a cost to the state of approximately $44 million.
Steinhauser said there's no way to track how often TANF funds are used for booze or strippers, but he noted the benefits are relatively low in Virginia compared with other states. A family of three with no income receives about $320 a month.
"I don't care if it's one person in 1,000," Ingram said. "They should be using it properly."