ONLY ON KOLD: Welfare spending - Tucson News Now

ONLY ON KOLD: Welfare spending

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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Every month the state of Arizona spends about $3 million of your money on a type of welfare that can be used to draw cash from an ATM or to buy something at a store. It’s not food assistance, it’s cash that is loaded onto a debit card.

Transaction reports show that recipients of cash welfare through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program are spending your tax dollars on things that go beyond basic needs. You won’t believe what little is being done to prevent it.

Tucson News Now obtained TANF transactions for the month of March which came with addresses for each location where the transaction was made. Those addresses include a strip club, various bars, liquor stores, and entertainment establishments including the Tucson Convention Center, a movie theater, and a roller rink.

Inspector General Marcus Hambrick with the Arizona Department of Economic Security said his agency has hired more sworn officers as part of a task force to prevent and investigate fraud, but he said DES does not go through individual transactions.

“This is not a report that we review right now,” Hambrick said.

Hambrick said the transaction data and the locations where TANF benefits are being spent do not indicate participants are committing violations.

“While I can understand the public may not like the idea of a benefit being used in a particular way, TANF was enacted in the United States Congress to allow people to achieve self sufficiency and to do so with a certain degree, a pretty big latitude of free will. They may make unfortunate decisions,” he said.

Hambrick said spending cash welfare at liquor and entertainment establishments is not illegal.

Among those who receive the benefits, there is mixed reaction.

“If it’s something that you need then absolutely do it. But if it’s something you’re doing to get cash on the side or to go hang out with your friends, you don’t need it, and you’re taking it away from people who do need it,” assistance recipient Shawn Wilburn said.

He’s applying for a second month of food assistance to hold him over until he starts work in September.

“I’m unemployed and my fiancé works at a Walmart, and as of right now our rent bill is stacking up.”

Wilburn said he’s also trying to help his disabled grandparents who are just barely getting by.

“They got eight dollars of food stamps," Wilburn said. "There’s two people in that home. Both of them are elderly. Neither of them have work. He’s getting a pension check for being in the U.S. military, and they still can’t get assistance.”

“I have no problem with it,” assistance recipient Chris Marx said. He’s a homeless man recently released from prison.

“It’s their money. I mean if they pay their bills and have a little left over why not use it for something you can enjoy yourself with? Marx said. "I’ve never been to the strip club, but I don’t mind a beer every once in a while."

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., has introduced a bill to prevent cash assistance from being used at pot shops in states where recreational marijuana is sold legally.

“I understand they’ve got a lot of work to do,” Gosar said. “But it’s part of the job and we as taxpayers, we as citizens are required to make sure that that job is being done appropriately.”

Gosar said he’s not surprised people are blowing their benefits on the wrong things.

“It tells us there’s no enforcement clause. There’s no penalty for these individuals for doing this, and we’re not serious about our oversight at the federal and at the state level as well,” he said.

Rep. Gosar’s bill is awaiting consideration by a committee.

The Department of Economic Services asks anyone who suspects welfare fraud to call their tip line at 1-800-251-2436.

Copyright 2014 Tucson News Now. All rights reserved.

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