A loophole in the Florida Department of Children and Families government-assistance program is raising concerns among taxpayers.
The Automated Community Connection to Economic Self Sufficiency (ACCESS) program provides qualified low-income families with monthly aid in the form of medical assistance, food stamps and cash to keep them financially afloat.
While the program regulates what individuals can spend in grocery stores, one feature remains in question: cash back.
People who apply for assistance through the program can access both food stamps and monthly cash assistance through an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card.
Once activated, the card works like a debit card.
John Harrell, the communications manager for the Florida Department of Children and Families Northeast Region, said in order for the money to be used responsibly, the cards are programmed to block specific items from being purchased.
Alcohol, tobacco products, medicines and household supplies are among the list of items banned from being purchased with EBT cards, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families.
Harrell said they function as smart cards and prevent the register from accepting the card as payment for these items.
There were a total of 167 attempted restricted card uses made between January and March, keeping nearly $2,000 from being spent on undesignated items, according to Harrell. However, EBT cardholders can use their cards at ATMs and stores to withdraw cash from food stamp or Temporary Cash Assistance balances.
Food stamps are meant to only provide money for purchasing “healthy foods,” like breads, meats, fruits, vegetables and plant seeds, according to the website. The Temporary Cash Assistance program also provides cash for eligible families with children still in school for other basic necessities.
Other measures to regulate EBT spending are in place at some Alachua County grocery stores.
Kevin Rauton, the processing director at Hitchcock’s Markets in the city of Alachua, said the store has implemented an additional safeguard to prevent restricted purchases from being made.
“Every item in our system is flagged either ‘food stamp’ or ‘non-food stamp,'” Rauton said. “If it’s flagged ‘food stamp,’ it is allowed to be purchased [with the card].”
Everything can be scanned together because the monitor keeps track of what amount is covered by the food stamps and the ineligible items that need to be paid for separately.
Harrell said people are also trying to use these benefits to pay for other services outside of grocery stores.
A 2013 Florida law banned the use of state-issued EBT cards at strip clubs, liquor stores and casinos.
The most recent data from the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service states nearly 3.5 million people receive food stamps in Florida.
Without any way of tracking this cash, some recipients could be using state tax dollars illegally. Harrell said they are working closely with the federal government to develop secure technology to stop the illegal spending of government aid money.
“We’d [DCF] have to consult with the federal government,” Harrell said. “This is a federal program, so we’ve got to follow federal guidelines.”