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RELIEF’S IN THE CARDS FOR WELFARE MOMS

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Meta Monkress and her family believe they'll be able to get off welfare soon. But until they do, the Provo mother of five is happy that her food stamps have been replaced by a new electronic benefit transfer card.

"I think it's fabulous. It's going to fight prejudice against welfare families," Monkress said of the "New Horizons" cards, which are being distributed to families who receive state benefits or food stamps in Utah, Wasatch and Summit counties.The cards, which will be honored at more than 100 grocery or convenience stores in the three counties, can be used to pay for food - thereby eliminating food stamps - or to make cash withdrawals for individuals who normally receive checks for general assistance, Aid to Families with Dependent Children or child-support payments.

For Monkress, it means she can use her New Horizons card in the same way as customers use credit cards at grocery stores and not feel scorn from other customers for using food stamps. She already has used her card twice since receiving it Oct. 11.

"I've got five children and my husband goes to school, so we can't live on just $1,200 per month," she said. "We're only getting about $220 per month in aid, but now I can use (my benefits) without getting dirty looks from other customers. It's a great feeling."

In addition to reducing the stigma attached to social programs, state officials are hoping the new program will be more efficient and less expensive.

"Everybody wins with this card," Gov. Mike Leavitt said during a press conference to kick off the program Thursday. "It eliminates a lot of paperwork and printing costs for the food stamps, and ensures that the money can't be used for a person or product that it shouldn't be used for."

State Office of Family Support officials have been working with Zions Bank on the program and have contracted with Deluxe Data, a Wisconsin company that has installed similar electronic benefits transfer systems in Maryland and New Jersey, to get the entire system up and running statewide by next spring.

Clyde Terry, an electronic benefits transfer specialist, said the three counties were chosen to use the new system first because the area has urban and rural communities close together to give the project a more-complete trial run.

Current food stamp users can get up to 99 cents change from purchases made with the coupons, which could lead to food stamp abuses, Terry said. But with electronic benefits transfers, no change for the purchase is given.

That excites Monkress, who said she is a frugal shopper.

"If you're careful, you can save your money for when you really need it," she said.

Also, although New Horizon card users can't use their food stamp benefits to buy nonfood grocery items like toothpaste and toilet paper, the card will allow them to make cash transfers from an account for other support benefits for those purchases.