USDA Finalizes EBT Cards Photo Rule

Agency heeds NACS comments to protect access for SNAP beneficiaries.

December 19, 2016

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued its final rule for those states who are seeking to require photos on Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards used for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. In its rulemaking, the agency sets implementation requirements for those states requiring, or wishing to require, photographs on EBT cards, and seeks to ensure that individuals legally entitled to SNAP benefits are able to access those benefits, whether or not their photo appears on the EBT card. 

During the public comment period, NACS filed comments on various aspects of the proposed rule, supporting it’s overall goal of ensuring SNAP beneficiaries can access their benefits. Convenience stores and other small neighborhood retail outlets play an essential role in SNAP and serve as “a fundamental access point in the Program,” as noted by NACS. Several of the association’s members have experienced the confusion photo EBT card requirements can have on retailers and SNAP recipients.

NACS underlined the need for states to do thorough outreach to SNAP retailers, as well as require language on the photo EBT cards that states that “any user with valid PIN can use SNAP benefits on card and need not be pictured,” or similar alternative text approved by USDA. The final rule heeded NACS’ comments and will require states to incorporate such PIN authentication language.

Currently, Maine and Massachusetts require that EBT cards contain photo identification. USDA has been critical of the implementation and management of those two states’ programs as the programs have resulted in retailer confusion and SNAP beneficiaries being denied access to their benefits. Those states’ experiences spurred USDA to pursue a rulemaking on the topic in an attempt to provide clarity.

Under the final rule, states have the ability to require—or to allow on a voluntary basis per the beneficiary’s request—a photograph of one or more members of the beneficiary’s household on an EBT card used for SNAP benefits. Before a state can implement a photo requirement, each state must submit an implementation plan outlining specific steps the state will take to ensure compliance with the regulations. Included in the implementation plan, states must perform outreach to SNAP retailers to ensure those retailers understand the statutory requirements associated with the photo EBT cards. USDA must approve a state’s plan before the state can proceed, and the approved states will be subjected to ongoing oversight by USDA.

USDA clarified in the final rule that state agencies must conduct sufficient education of clients and retailers, including retailers in contiguous areas, to inform them that the photo EBT cards remain interoperable and authorized retailers must accept EBT cards from all states as long as the user has a valid PIN.

Importantly, the final rule makes several small changes in response to NACS’ comments, including removing a provision that would have made SNAP retailers ask for explanations on why people were using multiple SNAP cards at one time. NACS explained in its comments that this practice could be interpreted as being discriminatory against SNAP beneficiaries and would be unlikely in helping reduce fraud and/or trafficking. The final rule does include language that if the retailer suspects fraud, that retailer shall report the individual to the USDA Fraud Hotline.

The final rule will go into effect on January 12, 2017.