California Cuts Off Welfare Debit Cards on Cruise Ships

After an investigative story ran in the Los Angeles Times showing state-issued welfare debit cards had been used at casinos across the United States and on cruise ships to withdraw millions of dollars of benefits at vacation spots, the state of California pulled the plug on such purchases Monday afternoon.

California's Department of Social Services discovered that more than $69 million targeted at helping the needy pay their rent and clothe their children was accessed by debit card use in 49 other states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam between January 2007 and May 2010.

The Times' story said the department's database showed $16,010 withdrawn from ATMs on 14 cruise ships sailing from such locales as Long Beach, CA and Miami along with such international cruise destinations as Brazil and China.

Eight of the ships on which the cards were used sail primarily from Miami. In addition, more than $11 million was spent or withdrawn in Las Vegas, about $1 million of that at shops and casino hotels on or close to the strip; of that, $8,968 was accessed at the Tropicana and $7,995 at the Venetian and its Grand Canal Shoppes.

John Wagner, the department's director, instructed the vendor administering the program to forbid such transactions on Monday. This follows a move a few months ago by California to block welfare debit card access at California gambling centers. That investigation revealed that more than half of the state's licensed casinos and poker rooms were set up to accept ATM transactions by persons using public assistance debit cards. 

That said, the state will not cut out-of-state access for the cards. As long as welfare recipients get clearance from their county case worker to be absent from the program's 32-hour-a-week job training requirement, Wagner said they may travel out of state and utilize the funds in a proper fashion. But casino and cruise ship purchases will no longer be authorized. 


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