Pennsylvania’s ACCESS Card: The Color of Shame

Pennsylvania ACCESS card

PA’s electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card

a peacock

A peacock

There was a time in the not so distant past when I needed to use welfare. Some might read this and instantly cringe at the idea. I have to say, even writing this, I’m uneasy about publicly admitting that I needed public assistance for something as commonplace as food.

An entire book could (and maybe should) be written about the unnecessary difficulty of the public assistance process, or the need for more funds for food assistance programs.

But where does that sudden feeling of shame come from when we think of welfare? I believe it has a lot to do with the color and design of Pennsylvania’s ACCESS card itself.

As I look at my electronic benefits transfer card, it is a mess of intense greens and blues as bright as a peacock, with the comically large glaring yellow word ACCESS on it. There is a ribbon of numbers on the card. Below the numbers my name is inscribed.

Even Milton Bradley’s newest rendition of Monopoly, played with credit cards, puts the design of Pennsylvania’s welfare ACCESS card to shame. My card is like a siren calling spectators with the words, “I’m poor! I’m poor!”

“Why would our state print a card that, when used as intended, causes public humiliation?”


Some research into the design and color of welfare cards in other states reveal that in most states the welfare card is nearly identical to a regular debit card. Welfare allocation funds for food and other amenities are transferred to cards that cannot be publicly detected.

So why would our state print a card that, when used as intended, causes public humiliation? We try to shame the poor. And it works: I was too proud to be seen with the card in public.

I would go to the store to shop for food just as soon as it opened, so that I’d be the only one in there. Otherwise, rather than use the ACCESS card publicly, I went to virtually unknown food pantries or small soup kitchens.

You might be thinking, “Get over your pride!” But I should not feel embarrassed to need public assistance, particularly since it’s a resource that I also pay for.

As I look at my paycheck today, I see that money is taken out for Social Security Insurance (SSI), Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), unemployment benefits (UE), as well as other federal and state taxes, which fund public assistance programs. SSI and SSDI benefits can be directly deposited into a personal banking account.  Pennsylvania issues a navy blue debit card that looks strikingly like your average debit card for those collecting unemployment benefits.

Why can’t Pennsylvania disburse welfare food funds from a discreet card? Because there is a public assistance apartheid, and if I fall financially short, I’ll be shamefully colored.

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12 Responses to Pennsylvania’s ACCESS Card: The Color of Shame

  1. Jäger wenb October 6, 2015 at 8:34 pm #

    Hey dum dum isn’t the reason they went to cards from stamps was so people didn’t stick out when paying. Not everthing is a conspiracy maybe just maybe someone was just being nice and allowing you access to a hot meal.

    • Just Harvest
      Just Harvest October 27, 2015 at 3:16 pm #

      Here is what the commenter fails to understand: The stated intentions of the USDA in switching from paper food stamps to EBT cards were indeed aimed at 1) reducing the program’s administrative costs, 2) reducing the risk of black-market, fraudulent use of food stamps, and 3) reducing the stigma associated with presenting food stamps as payment at the check-out counter. The switch to EBT succeeded marvelously in objectives 1 and 2. Our guest writer of this blog correctly points out that Pennsylvania failed miserably on number 3. We agree that “not everything is a conspiracy,” but it would have been remarkably easy for Pennsylvania to have done better for the 1.8 million people in our state who receive food stamps. The appropriate response to such a failure is not to thank “someone for just being nice.”

  2. Jim November 20, 2015 at 6:02 pm #

    Thanks for writing this. I couldn’t agree more. I just got back from grocery shopping and both people in front of me had an ACCESS card. I never saw one before and they REALLY stand out so I decided to google “ACCESS card” and your article came up. The young woman 10 feet from me seemed nervous using this card. The very old Italian looking lady right in front of me was so frail and out of it and didn’t seem to care about anything–including putting packs of meat between layers of newspaper in her personal push cart. I said nothing since she appeared destitute. These cards most certainly can be more discreet and an immediate redesign by the state should be a priority.

  3. Ted January 28, 2016 at 11:19 am #

    The good thing though is, the back of the card looks identical to the back of any other debit or credit card. What I do is keep a shopping cart between me and the person/people behind me in line to keep a little distance so they aren’t right on top of you. Then when its time to swipe, pull the card out so the people in line to your left only see the back of the card, that’s the way you have to swipe it anyway with the back of the card facing your left and they only see that when you make that quick swipe, then the card is quickly back in your wallet or purse the same way it came out. So if you keep the card in such a manner so when it’s pulled out the back faces your left and you put the card back real quick, chances are the people behind you can’t tell if its an EBT or DEBIT card. Only the cashier will know the truth.

  4. John Bito March 3, 2016 at 9:06 am #

    This is a bunch of nonsense. People wake up! If you NEED assistance, no shame should you feel. For those who are robbing the Government & Taxpayers, you should have shame!!
    We have more important things in our society to worry about or burden the Government about on how they issue Food Stamps, etc.
    So so sad!!!!

  5. Cindy Lassiter July 12, 2016 at 5:29 pm #

    They could be more like a debit and I certainly agree it’s done with a purpose because in ms we have a bright yellow school bus color and I’v seen where people have taken pics on their phones when some one pays with the yellow school bus color and they have a particular meat maybe ? The person takes a pic of the food and the snap card and they post it on the internet so you tell me if that card was yellow for a reason ? Well I spray painted mine dark blue !!!! I put it flat down on paper so the back isn’t painted and I painted it and I also have my basket a good distance behind me so no one is on the belt when I am and from a distance my card now looks like a credit card!!!!

  6. conlangarchitect July 13, 2016 at 11:49 am #

    Delaware’s EBT card is lovely, with a photo of the beach on it. It looks like a bank card. The PA card not only sticks out, it is ugly as hell too. Someone got paid for that hot mess.

  7. Venus Caceres October 13, 2016 at 9:01 am #

    Who can be contacted to push the ides for a new design? John Bito, poeple sure do have the right to complain and ask for a more discreet card. When u are on the other side of the fence then u will understand. It’s easy to say “no need to be ashamed” well that’s really hard when recipients are put to shame constantly. The whispers, the looks? Plus the recipient is immediately looked down on by any others standing around, as hey are categorized the same as those who take advantage of the system. It’s already difficult having to feel scared of humiliation when using it. There is no reason why this card has to be so extremely loud, It screams!

  8. Patrick O'Toole December 19, 2016 at 9:52 am #

    Many people are on “Access” for life and abuse the system. I am all for a hand up, for maybe a year. Then it’s up to you to make your way. I absolutely ABHOR seeing people in front of me in line with 3-4 kids, hundreds of dollars in groceries and they whip out their access cards and voila! no balance due. I would vote for any candidate that removes this scam from my tax bill. Also the $1000 per kid federal tax rebate. It incentivizes these welfare leeches to have more kids. I, in judgement, am not the problem. Again, I’m all for a hand up, but their has to be a time limit.

    • Just Harvest
      Just Harvest December 20, 2016 at 11:09 am #

      Patrick — 2/3 of food stamps recipients are seniors, people with disabilities, and children. For people age 18-59 who are able to work and have no dependents, the time limit for food stamps is only 3 months in a 3 year period, unless they are working 20 hours/week or involved in job training or service.

      Meanwhile, it’s strange (and sad) that you abhor the idea of families with children being kept from going hungry. The overwhelming majority of them are working families (or soon-to-be employed) who simply aren’t earning enough to get by.

      Regarding your assumptions about who receives food stamps and welfare, and for how long, you may want to get your facts straight before you embarrass yourself further:

      • Ann March 8, 2017 at 2:34 am #

        For every $50,000 of income, $36 of your taxes go to snap benefits.

        • Just Harvest
          Just Harvest March 8, 2017 at 10:34 am #

          Thanks for your comment! Actually, that $36 goes to food and nutrition assistance, which includes not only SNAP (“food stamps”) but all the other federal nutrition programs, like WIC, school and summer meals, farmers market nutrition programs, and other important programs to prevent hunger.

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