PHOENIX - It's not quite a scarlet letter.
But a Chandler Republican lawmaker wants the debit cards now given to food-stamp recipients to be bright safety orange. And if there's any doubt what the card pulled out of someone's wallet at the checkout is, that would be erased by the words "Government Food Stamp Card" stamped across it in large black print.
First-term Rep. Jeff Dial said his goal is not to stigmatize those who qualify for the aid, formally known as the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Instead, Dial said he wants to prevent fraud.
"If that does concern people that they have a bright orange card, I hope they go get a better education or better jobs and stop using that card," he said.
However, what Dial wants to do in his proposal, set for hearing today before the House Health and Human Services Committee, may be precluded by federal regulations, Department of Economic Security spokesman Steve Meissner said.
The program, funded by the federal government, is designed to help low-income people buy more nutritious items than their finances might otherwise allow. As of last month, there were more than 431,000 Arizona families getting some assistance.
Any family with an income of less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level - $1,984 a month for a family of three - is eligible, with the amount of help computed according to a formula.
In an example provided by the state Department of Economic Security, which administers the program, a family of three with gross earnings of $946 a month, before taxes and deductions, is entitled to $242 a month in benefits.
At one time food stamps actually were in the form of coupons in various dollar amounts. Now, all states administer it with debit cards.
"It's obviously a big deal now in the state to get rid of any wasteful spending," Dial said.
"It's my understanding that a lot of people - and I don't know the numbers yet - that are taking the food-stamp cards and are selling them basically, whether it be on Craigslist or to other individuals. "I believe they should be used by the intended person and not be used by third parties or be sold for like 50 cents or 25 cents on the dollar."
Dial said the bright orange color and bold lettering would make it "very clear" what the card is. That, in turn, would direct the retailer to demand additional identification proving the person presenting the card is, in fact, the legitimate holder.
"We want people to take a very close look at that card and make sure that the person that's using that card matches up by ID as well as by photo so we can get rid of that wasteful spending," Dial said.
Federal rules say debit cards users cannot be singled out for "special treatment" compared with any other shopper. A bright orange card, Meissner said, could run afoul of that.
He said a requirement for retailers to ask for photo ID to compare with the name on the card definitely would violate federal anti-discrimination rules, particularly as users have their own unique personal identification number.
It is legal, Meissner said, to require the state as the card issuer to put the name or photograph of all household recipients and their authorized representatives on the debit cards. But he said there are practical considerations that could force DES to have to issue more than one debit card for each household.
Dial said the fact that federal, not state, funds are involved does not reduce his desire to curtail fraud.
"We're all paying taxes to the federal government," he said, with the state only administering the program. "It may not be coming out of our budget, but we should be good custodians."
As misuse goes, DES officials said three of 49 investigators it has on staff are devoted strictly to tracking down food-stamp fraud. The agency said the new fraud unit, set up last year, does not have figures of how much was saved through its activities.