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Welfare System Abuse in the Valley - Valley News Live - KVLY/KXJB - Fargo/Grand Forks

Welfare System Abuse in the Valley

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The welfare system's ultimate goal is to help struggling families, including nearly 40 million households in 2010 - about one third of the nation - and like any system, it's vulnerable to abuse, meaning tax dollars ending up in the hands of the less-than-deserving. After a cashier at a local grocery store blew the whistle one such case, Valley News Team's Eric Crest stepped in to investigate... and found a surprising lack of action by the state.

Cashiers at area grocery stores see Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards used as payment every day. The cards are provided by the state Department of Social Services to low-income families and are intended to work like debit cards, granting their holders access to just enough food and other state-subsidized benefits to get by. 

Unfortunately, the program occasionally falls prey to the few who see in it a chance to make a profit.

Food Stamp Fraud

cashier Sheryl Jackson came to Valley News Live with a story about one such abuse.

A man came through her line, used an EBT card to make his purchase, then left... but returned approximately ten minutes later, explaining that he had to return some items, because his wife "told [him] she just purchased" the items.

He told Sheryl he "didn't have a card," so she assumed he had paid cash and gave him a cash refund. By the time she realized what had happened, it was too late; when Sheryl caught up with the man in the parking lot, he simply told her, "I'm not going back in there," and left.

Sheryl stated that because she was on food stamps as she raised her four kids years ago, when she "made every penny stretch [...] it just infuriates me to see someone do that with this money."

How is North Dakota combating benefits fraud?

Once an instance of abuse is brought to the Department's attention, a report is filed, and a representative will contact the client in question. Chip Ammerman of Cass County Social Services told Valley News Live they take fraud allegations seriously, "regardless if it's 50 cents or 50 dollars."

That's the opposite of what Sheryl heard two weeks ago from another representative. "[The representative] said, 'I understand your concern,'" Sheryl explained, "'but I don't think it will be prosecuted because of the [small] amount.'"

While a single instance of fraud may not seem like a big deal to some, there are over 27,000 eligible North Dakota households currently on government service programs, so nationally, even if only two or three percent of families who use the government assistance ever tried to defraud the system, that would mean 9 to 13 billion dollars of your tax dollars down the drain in the course of one year. 
Some might find it surprising that social services doesn't cut off offenders' benefits immediately, but, Ammerman explains, the Department must first open a review of the case.

If it weren't for attentive folks like Sheryl, abuses might go undiscovered. If you notice someone taking advantage of the welfare system, your county's social services department would like to hear from you.

 

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