Debit Card Welfare Payments Could Cut Crime, Shows Study


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In recent years more states have begun to move their public assistance programs over to Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) systems. The programs essentially provide assistance through debit cards rather than cash through traditional checks.

These EBT initiatives have sparked plenty of debate about the nature of welfare and the part the banking industry plays in EBT systems. A new study has now thrown new data into the mix showing that EBT programs do have at least one massive benefit for communities.

The study, published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, shows that EBT systems have a direct correlation with lower street crime. Researchers found that less cash on streets could put a dent in criminal enterprises that disproportionately rely on cash.

"Our study shows that even a small reduction of cash has a positive effect in reducing street crime," said Topalli. "That's a good thing. But the question moving forward is, what will the impact of a future with even more cashless transactions be on the nation's poor, who up to now have relied disproportionately on cash?"

The study's authors have calculated that EBT programs could be a factor in as much as a 9.8% reduction in crime rates in a given area. In addition to the predictable cash-friendly crimes that are disrupted by the systems, the study found that property crimes and muggings also decreased as cash was converted to debit cards.

"Our results indicate that implementation of the EBT program is associated with a 9.8 percent reduction in the overall crime rate," said Volkan Topalli, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of criminology at Georgia State University. "This was led by reductions in home burglaries, assault and larceny. We also find fewer arrests for non-drug offenses in counties where EBT benefit payments were implemented."

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