MEMPHIS, TN (abc24.com) - You paid for it. Welfare money meant to care for children is instead being spent on Beale Street, the Orpheum, even liquor stores. ABC 24 senior investigator Jeni Diprizio breaks down how your federal tax money was spent and what lawmakers are doing to stop the rampant abuse.
A bill to stop welfare abuse is working its way through the Tennessee legislature. It comes after a government watchdog group found questionable transactions on EBT, or electronic benefit cards.
Drive around town and you see one liquor store after another advertising they accept EBT. The government debit cards hold food stamp money and cash assistance. People are able to use that cash to buy booze. Just ask welfare recipient Jacqueline Sistrunk.
"Instead of spending money on kids they spend money on liquor," she said, "it happens all the time, typically on the 1st and the 15th of the month."
Marquella Scott has seen it too. "I think it's really bad for EBT cash to be spent on alcohol when you have so many people in need."
"Why is it necessary for a liquor store to accept an EBT card when this money is intended for a much different use?" asked Trey Moore with the Beacon Center of Tennessee.
The government watchdog group poured through more than 100,000 EBT transactions. Their investigation found a laundry list of questionable transactions in Shelby County.
$140 spent on Beale Street. $120 spent at the Orpheum. $60 at Senses night club. Transactions made at Best Buy and the Waffle House. There were so many transactions at liquor stores, they stopped counting. They also found hundreds of dollars spent at strip clubs.
If the legislation passes, it would ban the use of EBT cards at strip clubs, casinos and liquor stores. Violators would lose benefits. Businesses accepting the cards would be fined.
It's no surprise politicians are getting pushed back. One liquor store employee, who would only identify himself as "Joe," thinks the proposed law is a farce. He says only about ten percent of his welfare customers use their benefits to buy alcohol. And even then, he says the sale is never direct.
"We're gonna charge you to get cash and if you chose later to buy a bottle it's up to you," he said. "You're your own person."
Supporters of the legislation say it would cut down on benefit abuse; after all, the money is supposed to be used to raise children.
The bill passed the Senate. A House committee will take up the matter this week.