UPDATE: Albany welfare purchases reviewed

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

Albany TANF Numbers

ALBANY, Ga. -- A review of a state-administered, taxpayer-funded welfare program suggests that roughly 7.5 percent of the funds spent in Albany, or more than $110,000, was spent at liquor stores and bars.

In response to an Open Records Request from The Albany Herald, the Georgia Department of Human Services distributed nearly $1 million records of financial transactions involving the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program statewide for 2010.

Cutting out all but the Albany records, the transactions show that more than $1.4 million in TANF funds were spent locally during 2010, the majority at area grocery stores, convenience stores and curb stores.

But, in examining the records, The Herald also noted up to 35 percent of the TANF transactions appear to have been used at ATMs to obtain cash, which can't be tracked, or at places like Jaxx Liquor Store and the Sandtrap Bar and Lounge.

In total, $110,997 in TANF funds appear to have been spent in 2010 through 546 transactions at Jaxx Liquor Store, with $1,260 at the Sandtrap and $48.60 at the Warehouse Package Store.

More than $424,000 in TANF funds appear to have been converted from the state-issued card to cash at local banks.

Jaxx also had the highest single cash transaction on the list for Albany in 2010: a $533 transaction on Oct. 1. Of the top 50 transactions in terms of amount, Jaxx had 29, the most of any one entity.

Ravae Graham, deputy director for Legislative Affairs and Communications for the Georgia Department of Human Services, said the TANF program is less restrictive in terms of how recipients can spend the money than similar social programs like Georgia's food stamp program.

"The intent for TANF is to help provide flexibility for needy families, so it isn't like the food stamp program; it's meant to allow for payment of rent or other non-comestibles," Graham said. "The whole purpose of the program is to give needy families some semblance of stability and independence temporarily so that they get their own legs under them and support themselves."

When asked if TANF money spent at liquor stores and bars was the intended use for the money, Graham put the expenditures in a bigger context.

"A good majority of those on TANF, and the numbers will show this, are using it for what it was intended for, the benefit of the child or family," Graham said. "If people are using the money incorrectly ... we take it seriously and ask the public to call our fraud line and the inspector general."

It's not illegal for businesses to sell items to TANF recipients, although recipients who use their benefits inappropriately could face fraud charges.

Graham said that the responsibility for restricting or defining the use of TANF funds is one that rests with the federal government through the U.S. Office of Health and Human Services.

TANF and the Georgia Food Stamp program are both programs that are funded largely by the federal government, Graham said.

TANF is funded solely by the federal government, while the food stamp program is almost completely funded by the federal government with the state paying for administration costs.

While both programs are funded by the feds, the programs are administrated by the state and, for TANF, the states are able to tweak eligibility requirements so long as they stay within federal guidelines.

While the food stamp program excludes certain items for purchase at the register, TANF does not.

Since welfare reform legislation was passed in 1997, welfare benefits distributed throughout the state have dropped from $300 million to $54 million.

While the expenditures in Albany appear to show irregular transactions, they aren't the most irregular in the state.

A report by WSB states that TANF funds were used to purchase items at strip clubs and luxury stores in Atlanta.

The documents also show that a Georgia TANF recipient used his benefits to purchase services at a tattoo parlor in California.

Graham said the potential for abuse of the system has led to the creation of the department's Office of Inspector General in 2007. That office exists to investigate claims of fraud and abuse and actively solicits information from the public on possible fraudulent practices.

To report possible fraud, call the Office of Inspector General at 800-282-4063.