MEMPHIS, TN - (WMC-TV) – Taxpayer dollars wasted on everything from booze to hair to concert tickets, eye-opening abuse of the Tennessee welfare program. Only on 5, a call to action to stop that waste. And just wait until you see just what your tax dollars are being wasted on!
"A necessity is not an Orpheum ticket for concerts. It's not a tour of Graceland. And it's not $700 worth of purchases at a liquor store," said Justin Owen with The Beacon Center.
But that's exactly how EBT - electronic benefit transfer cards - were used in Memphis by people on Tennessee's welfare program. Consumer watchdogs from The Beacon Center in Nashville combed through thousands of pages of state records.
"We looked at Memphis in particular and over a three month period we surveyed $140,000 different transactions and found some very interesting expenditures," Owen said.
The money is supposed to be used for necessities only: food, clothing, shelter. But state records show thousands of dollars being spent on non-essentials.
"When you're taking taxpayer money to go on a tour of Graceland, that tells you there's something wrong with our welfare system," said Owen.
Records show at least two purchases at Graceland, one for $20 and another for $60.
A Graceland spokesperson said that the company takes the allegations seriously. Kevin Kern says Graceland absolutely does not accept EBT cards and the matter is under investigation.
That's nothing compared to 790 dollars at Highway 51 Liquor.
Records show hundreds of transactions at Memphis liquor stores. Three separate charges total $1,460 dollars at Louis Liquor, $514 dollars at Lauderdale Liquors and another $520 at Blue-4-Liquor.
The problem is the cards can be used like an ATM card. Some families get up to $550 a month, and if they don't spend it all it rolls over.
"You can literally walk into a liquor store for instance, swipe the card, get cash back and then purchase whatever you want, including liquor," said Owen.
And apparently concert tickets. Records show $120 spent at the Orpheum Theater. A spokesperson said they are alarmed by the transaction and called it puzzling.
"It does make me angry cause I go to work everyday and my taxes pay for EBT benefits," said Rhonda Robinson.
"We know that we don't have the controls in place that are needed," State Representative G.A. Hardaway said.
Hardaway says this kind of abuse needs to be addressed.
"We've got to look at the user. We've got to look at the merchant," he said.
The Beacon Center says we have to look at those who oversee the program.
"Unfortunately the state oversees the program, but the states say hey look, most the money comes from the federal government. They don't make us manage it so we don't look into where the money is being spent," Owen said.
A whopping $946 at Ace Cash Express; $560 dollars at a Mapco; $140 at Rum Boogie café on Beale; $60 at Best Buy. Another $35 at a Hair Plus.
"It shouldn't happen. I hope somebody's checking into it to find out how to stop," said taxpayer Jana Wilson.
"We're calling on state lawmakers to actually put in the law requirements that would limit how this money can be used and requirements that someone at the state level has to keep track of that and if there are questionable expenditures - do something about it," Justin Owen said.
"They're designed for a specific purpose. When people are taking advantage of it it's like taking advantage of me," said Rhonda Robinson.
The Beacon Center has just released their findings to the public. You can look through all 3 thousand pages of transactions at this link: