EBT Blocking Rules Should Minimize Harm to Low-income Families

Jun 12, 2012

When Congress extended the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program through the end of fiscal year 2012, it required states to adopt policies and practices to ensure that TANF cash assistance cannot be withdrawn with an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card from ATMs or point of sale (POS) devices located in liquor stores, casinos, and adult entertainment establishments. CLASP has long-argued that these restrictions are unnecessary, based on misleading and overhyped media reports, and stigmatize needy families

However, given that this requirement has been enacted into law, CLASP has submitted comments to the Administration for Children and Families' (ACF) solicitation for input on how to implement these requirements. In our comments, CLASP urged HHS to consider the following broad principles as it prepares regulations:

  • As much as possible, regulations should minimize the burden upon states of implementing these requirements. In the context of a fixed block grant and demand for services that far exceeds available funding, devoting resources to enforcing restrictions on TANF EBT access would take away resources from other services for needy families.
  • ACF should make clear that the blocking requirement only applies to funds that are placed onto a state provided EBT card. It does not apply to the use of a debit card to access funds from a bank account that originated as TANF benefits (through a check, direct deposit, or by a client withdrawing funds from EBT and placing them in the bank). The blocking requirement also does not apply to services funded by TANF (including short-term non-recurrent payments and wages for subsidized employment) or non-TANF benefit programs.
  • By including the state plan language about ensuring client access to TANF benefits (including low-cost or free access) in this section, Congress recognized that EBT blocking may have adverse impacts on access or cost. ACF should explicitly permit states to make exceptions to EBT blocking in areas where benefits cannot readily be accessed except in restricted locations.
  • There is significant variation across states in the fees that EBT vendors and ATM/POS owners may charge to clients for accessing their TANF benefits. These policies should be clearly disclosed to clients and described in the state plan, and states should make public information about the total fees collected. ACF should share best practices in this area with the states, along the lines of the Department of Labor's Unemployment Insurance Program Letter 34-09.
  • ACF should encourage states to implement these provisions in a way that minimizes the burden on clients to understand and comply with the restrictions, and that does not put cash register operators in a position of monitoring compliance.

States have until February 22, 2014 to adopt policies implementing the new requirements. HHS has stated that it will issue a proposed rule regulating the requirement for states to report on their policies and practices, and the associated penalty. The proposed rule will be published and subject to public comment before it is finalized. CLASP will provide analysis and comment on the draft rule at that time.

The low-income families receiving TANF assistance struggle with many different things each day, including finding safe child care, transportation to get to work, and having enough to pay the bills at the end of the month. Additional barriers to accessing their TANF assistance shouldn't be added to that list. By adopting these principles, ACF can minimize the resources wasted in implementing this provision, and ensure that needy families are not unduly burdened and do not pay excessive fees in accessing their benefits. 

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