Electronic Cards Replace Coupons for Food Stamps

By ROBERT PEAR

Published: NYT, June 23, 2004

WASHINGTON, June 22 — The Bush administration announced Tuesday that it had completed one of the biggest changes in the history of the food stamp program, replacing paper coupons with electronic benefits and debit cards.

At the same time, the administration said it wanted to rename the program because the term “food stamps” had become an anachronism. It is inviting the public to suggest how to update the name of a program that became a permanent part of the government, and the nation’s vocabulary, during Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society era.

Electronic benefits have replaced food stamp coupons in all states, and more than half the states now issue electronic benefits in place of welfare checks as well. In addition, some states are using debit cards for Medicaid and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman declared an end to the “paper era” of the food stamp program on Tuesday at a conference of state officials here.

“This month the food stamp program arrived in the 21st century,” Ms. Veneman said. “States are destroying the paper coupons, and we don’t anticipate that we’ll ever have to print them again.”

Food stamp recipients generally like debit cards because they avoid the stigma that can be associated with the use of paper coupons. Grocers like the new technology because they are paid faster, often within 48 hours; cashiers do not have to handle vouchers; and there are no coupons to sort, count and bundle.

State officials said they preferred the electronic system because it was simpler to administer and helped reduce fraud and abuse by eliminating the paper coupons that can be lost, sold or stolen. Over the years, food stamps have been sold on the black market and used as a form of currency to buy narcotics and other contraband.

More than 23 million people receive food stamp benefits each month, but nationwide only three of five eligible people are participating. Unlike most other assistance programs, food stamps are available to most low-income households with few assets regardless of age, disability or family structure.

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