AUGUSTA – Maine will begin putting photo identification on welfare benefit cards this month, first in Bangor and then across the state in an effort to target fraud and abuse, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration said on Friday.
The process of switching over to the new cards will begin April 28 and within a year, heads of households and secondary card holders throughout Maine will have photos placed on their electronic benefit transfer cards, which low-income families use to buy food and other necessities.
The Republican governor’s plan is part of the administration’s larger effort around welfare including proposals shot down in the Democratic-controlled Legislature this session to limit the use of EBT cards for certain purchases and outside of the state. The photo requirement didn’t need legislative approval.
Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in a statement Friday that the plan supports the “administration’s efforts to strengthen the integrity of our public assistance programs.”
“The photo will also help our staff to verify the identity of the benefit recipient and will be helpful in cases where cards have been illegally sold or when multiple cards are in the possession of an individual,” she said.
Residents younger than 19, older than 60, blind or disabled or victims of domestic violence, will be exempt, according to details about the efforts laid out in a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Access Act request.
Advocates for the poor have criticized the idea, saying that it’s been costly and ineffective at preventing fraud in other states and could create roadblocks that prevent some from utilizing the benefits.
Massachusetts and New York are the only other states who’ve taken this step, according to the department. It did not immediately respond to questions about how much the initiative will cost in Maine.
Chris Hastedt, public policy director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, said she’s relieved that some people will be exempt, but remains concerned that the requirement will prevent people from having their kids or neighbors buy food for them if they’re sick or otherwise can’t make it to the store.
Cardholders are currently required to enter a PIN before their purchase is approved.
“This is not an effective means to mitigate fraud … and why would you expose people to these potential dangers and harms and violations of their rights … when there is so little to be gained by it?” Hastedt said.
Starting this month, those who have benefit cards can go to the DHHS Bangor office to get their photo taken and receive a new card, the department said. The new cards will also state that misusing the benefits is a crime.
USDA officials requested details about the state’s plan in February, saying that the federal government must work closely with the state as the addition of EBT card photos “because of the of the complex legal, operational and civil rights issues that have arisen around the implementation of photo EBT cards elsewhere.”