Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Ronda Storms' food stamp law affects cash assistance, too

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico. (Tampa Bay Times photo by Melissa Lyttle)
Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico. (Tampa Bay Times photo by Melissa Lyttle)

Sen. Ronda Storms nicknamed her proposal to prohibit purchases of junk food with taxpayer money the "No Twinkie Left Behind bill."

There's really more to it than that. 

In addition to preventing families who rely on food stamps and temporary cash assistance from buying a variety of sugary and salty products, Storms, R-Valrico, wants to stop recipients from spending their money at strip clubs, casinos and bars.

Some of the folks paying attention to her idea (SB 1658) include the Los Angeles Times and Fox News. Fox News host Neil Cavuto interviewed Storms about the proposal on Feb. 7, 2012. 

"We're having a problem with people making their EBT transfers and withdrawals at strip clubs and liquor stores and gambling," she explained during the interview. "So we have removed their ability to do that in the bill."

We wanted to check out what she claimed was a problematic practice in Florida. How often, if at all, does it really happen?

To begin with, there's a big difference between how people get food stamps and how they get cash assistance. Storms' proposal addresses both, but they operate very differently.

First, a primer on the cash assistance program, which is called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. It's a federal-state partnered program that offers financial help to about 93,000 poor families and children in Florida. The state Department of Children and Families does not distribute the money in cash. Recipients get what functions as a debit card loaded with a fixed amount depending on the number of children. The debit cards are usually referred to as EBT cards, which stands for electronic benefit transfer. 

The average monthly distribution per household is $240, according to DCF, and the average length of stay is four and a half months.

It's different than the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps, which allow for certain kinds of food to be purchased on a separate EBT card. Storms' proposed restrictions on cake, cookies, chips and sodas would affect this program, though it would be tricky because it is entirely federally funded and federal approval would be required.

With 3.3 million people, or about one in six Floridians, in the program, SNAP decisions would affect many more people than those who receive TANF. 

We're focused on the uses (and abuses) of TANF for this fact check.

What sparked Storms' proposal was a TV news report detailing how recipients withdrew their cash assistance from racy locations in and outside of the state: a dog-racing track near Jacksonville, a Fort Myers Beach bar, a Miami strip club called the Foxy Lady.

The southwest Florida-based station NBC2 enlisted a Virginia-based database firm to help sort out 1.3 million EBT transactions over a roughly two-year period ending April 2011. Of $201.8 million in total transactions, the station found that $190,733 was withdrawn from liquor stores, strip clubs, bowling alleys, bars and bingo parlors, according to the story. That's less than 1 percent of transactions.

The station's numbers closely match an audit of ATM transactions by the Department of Children and Families, a spokesman told us. ATM withdrawals at casinos or parimutuels comprised .06 percent of all transactions. For places with liquor licenses, such as bars and liquor stores, withdrawals made up .03 percent of the total.

DCF officials say they do not -- and cannot -- keep tabs of what's purchased with TANF money.

"This is a very small universe of folks we're speaking about here," said DCF spokesman Joe Follick.

Tampa's Fox 13 gave the issue another look as Storms' bill moved through the Senate's committee process, where it has been praised for its goal of protecting taxpayer money, or skewered for micro-managing poor families. The story told of TANF withdrawals at amusement parks, high-end mall stores such as Neiman Marcus, and smoke shops.

Storms provided these news stories to PolitiFact Florida as evidence of the state's problem. She added that part of the problem is that "each person doesn't make one transaction." DCF does not monitor how often recipients may spend money at certain locations.

Storms' claim includes strip clubs and gambling, but the state does not regulate strip clubs (adult entertainment restrictions are often decided at the local level, we found in a separate check), nor does it regulate another form of gambling: Internet cafes. The state doesn't keep track of how often EBT transactions are made at those locations. We might be able to factor in Internet cafes one day soon, as legislators are mulling both bans and regulations for these businesses.

We told Storms about our findings. At around 1 percent of transactions, is spending taxpayer-paid TANF money at these locations really a problem, per se? "Well, yeah," she told PolitiFact Florida. "Even if it's one (person)."

We're leery of rating statements that skew subjective.

If you're like Storms, who considers even one case of abuse a problem, you'd give her claim a True.

But her comments don't apply to the more widespread food stamp program. And, if you're looking at the entire cash assistance program, it's only a small fraction of transactions that happen at liquor stores and parimutuels. The state doesn't keep track of transactions at strip clubs.

In this case, a problem is in the eye of the beholder.