Government cash assistance being used to buy tobacco and beer in Utah

Your tax money is being used to get people their nicotine fix — or even drunk. Get Gephardt investigates. (Photo: KUTV)

Your tax money is being used to get people their nicotine fix — or even drunk. Those are the findings of a Get Gephardt investigation into Utah’s cash assistance program.

Utahns who are facing extreme hardships, like being on the verge of losing their gas, power, water, or even home or car, can apply for cash assistance. It's exactly what it sounds like: a card that gives them access to cash.

But it's a system that some say is being wildly abused. Get Gephardt was contacted by a handful of people who work in grocery and convenience stores who provided a pile of receipts showing how some are using their cash assistance to buy toys, cigarettes and beer.

The whistleblowers to whom Get Gephardt spoke say it happens multiple times every single day and it's a wide variety of people.

“I've seen it many, many times," one clerk told Get Gephardt on the condition of anonymity for fear that they may lose their job. "It does make me mad, very angry."

The cash assistance program is run by the Utah Department of Workforce Services. Get Gephardt took some of the receipts to department spokesperson Nate McDonald.

McDonald says there is absolutely nothing in Utah law that dictates what a person is forbidden from buying using cash assistance.

"The fact that they're making these purchases is not fraud," he said.

Federal rules say where cash assistance cannot be used, including liquor stores.

Even if Utah law did prohibit the purchase of tobacco, alcohol or other non-essentials with cash assistance funds, McDonald says it is not worth the time, energy or expense it would take to crack down on the abuse. McDonald says the system is designed to be as flexible as cash itself and that preventing bogus purchases would be costly.

"The question mark, then, comes down to: What can you put in place to prevent this from occurring?” he said. “The number of incidence that are out there, it would not justify the costs to implement something of that nature."

Several weeks after that interview, McDonald says his department discussed the matter further and is now recommending a change. The department is taking steps to make it officially against the rules to use cash assistance for alcohol and tobacco.

The change will allow whistleblowers, like those who contacted Get Gephardt, to submit their evidence to the state, which will have the power to investigate and, maybe, take those benefits away.

The state is taking public comment on the proposed rule change beginning Monday, February 4, 2019. If you want to comment, you need to do before March 4, 2019.

Comments can be made by emailing or mailing WORKFORCE SERVICES, c/o Amanda McPeck, 140 E 300 S, SALT LAKE CITY, UT 84111-2333.

If you have questions about the proposed rule change, you can call calling 801-517-4709.

The proposed rule change can be found on page 33 of THIS BULLETIN.

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