The mechanics of welfare delivery in the U.S. are arcane and opaque to those of us on the outside of the system. One of the major innovations in recent years has been the shift from physical food stamps to debit cards. The major banks (from what I understand) bid on the contract to provide these cards exclusively within a given state, which would presumably be a low-margin business for them. That presumption would be wrong, however – welfare recipients are exactly the sort of underinformed, stressed and poorly protected customers lenders have gravitated to in the decades of American financialization. The fact that welfare recipients are utterly captive to whoever controls their card is the icing on the cake – a perfect form of coercive aggregation.
The results have been predictable:
The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services says it wants to know why JPMorgan Chase [that state’s sole vendor for cards] is charging welfare recipients 85 cents each time they withdraw money from one of its bank machines, according to Rebecca Henrie, a spokesperson with DSHS’s Community Services Division.
In the first four months of 2011, Chase, one of the nation’s largest banks, took in a total of $465,000 in ATM fees from some of the state’s poorest people: single mothers on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, a program that DSHS administers.
And that’s only in one state out of 50. The best part is that the bank can claim that the card holders were aware of the fees even though they’re under no obligation to disclose them:
Most Quest card users don’t know about the 85-cent charge because it doesn’t show up on their ATM receipts, Henrie said. DSHS does provide new TANF recipients a Quest card brochure that notes the charge, she said.