Georgians say $350 payments start rocky, state defends push

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at The Neighborhood Lot on Friday, July 29, 2022, in McDonough, Ga. (AP Photo/Megan Varner )

Some Georgia residents say they’re having a hard time accessing and spending $350 payments the state is making to more than 3 million residents who benefit from Medicaid, subsidized child health insurance, food stamps or cash welfare assistance.

Others have been able to access the money, with the state saying more than 270,000 people claimed $95.5 million in the first three days of the program, including $30 million that has already been spent through more than 580,000 transactions.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp announced the plan to spend up to $1.2 billion in federal COVID-19 aid on the payments in August.

Everyone in a household that receives benefits is supposed to get a separate payment, meaning a single parent with two children would get $1,050.

The state started transmitting the money electronically to benefit recipients on Tuesday. However, people began running up against limitations. Although the money can be used like a credit or debit card, it can’t be converted into cash or a money order. It also can’t be used to buy tobacco, vaping products, alcohol, guns, lottery tickets or for gaming, gambling and adult entertainment.

Crucially, if users transfer the money to an Apple electronic wallet, it can’t be used to make in-store purchases at Walmart because Walmart only accepts Apple Pay online. The department warned Thursday that some other merchants also don’t accept virtual card payments.

Thousands of commenters flooded the Department of Human Services’ Facebook page to complain about their difficulties, including some who said they were embarrassed when they brought a basket of items to a cashier only to be turned away. Others said they could only pay their landlord with a money order, a prohibited transaction under the state’s rules.

The department said the top categories for successful purchases so far have been at retail and grocery stores and to pay utility bills. The top categories for declined transactions so far have been for attempts to buy prohibited items or to convert the card to cash.

Kemp has already given out income tax rebates and used federal COVID-19 aid to make grants to various groups. He has also proposed spending $2 billion in state surplus next year on property tax rebates and a second round of income tax rebates, if voters reelect him to a second term in November instead of Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams. Those two plans would require legislative approval next year.

The spending has incensed Democrats, who claim Kemp is trying to buy reelection. Under state law, Kemp controls how billions in federal COVID-19 relief is spent, meaning he can hand out money even as he bashes Democratic President Joe Biden and Abrams for high inflation and spending.

The governor again said that his reason for handing out cash was to help people pressured by higher prices, even though economists agree that such spending worsens inflation by dumping more cash into the economy to bid up the prices of goods and services.

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