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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27 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 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.”

    • m. April 24, 2021 at 7:59 pm #

      foodstamp card doesn’t pay for hot meals.
      and he never said it was a conspiracy or designed to shame.
      it just seems weird you’re the one calling the writer dum dum.

  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!!!!

    • mindy October 12, 2017 at 1:36 pm #

      You can tell people not to feel shame, but that isn’t going to do anything. As human beings we like to be able to provide the necessities of life without assistance and it’s often very uncomfortable for people to admit that the need some help. The stigma surround “food stamps” or SNAP also doesn’t help as so many still believe that they are just people who are lazy and want handouts, even though this is an often terribly misguided mindset. There are MANY dedicated and hardworking people who are struggling to provide for their families in this current economy and society, that are refusing this type of aid because of the assumption that people make about them. Educate yourself on this issue please, allow yourself to emphasize a little for the hardworking folks in careers that don’t pay as well as they should (labor jobs, farmers, etc). There’s no reason to make the cards a bright, easily identifiable color once you are made aware of how that affects peoples willingness to use the resource. It’s a simple fix that can be made to make this a non-issue.

  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 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 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.

        • Joshua May 18, 2020 at 10:33 am #

          Most people on food stamps are working poor… Who can afford rent and food on $8/hr even both parents working?

  9. Christine marie May 4, 2017 at 3:10 pm #

    I wonder this also, as unemployment benefits, which are equally abused, come on lovely cards identical to credit or debit cards… I found myself needing food stamps after my children and I left an abusive husband/father after 10 years, when he was incarcerated for trying to kill me. The shame of admitting that was enough, then to relive it and be reminded, ( however thankful for the help we were) stung, because I could see people staring at me as if they were trying to determine my need based on my appearance.

  10. Bridget July 20, 2017 at 12:23 pm #

    Not only is the Medical Assistance card school bus yellow, my lovely pharmacist insisted to question me over why I had that card and not a card from my provider EVERY friggin’ time I came in. He almost shouted so that the whole place was aware “poor senior” here, to lazy to work, too dumb to plan ahead for medical needs and too old to make that kind of money that would give you everything in a hand basket. Humiliating is too polite a term for that and I will not go back to that pharmacy. That doesn’t mean that the DHS could not have done a better job. I feel strongly that the design is intentional.

  11. Ed Bloom October 10, 2017 at 3:08 pm #

    I see first hand that the users of ACCESS cards are NOT shamed at all. This is the second time, today, that I went to a fish market here in Pittsburgh, and the user of the ACCESS card paid around $100 for a bag of King Crab Legs, in front me in line…………Surely, as I went back to work, I never thought “The color of Shame”, but the clear rip-off or hard working tax payers like me that can NOT afford $39/pound crab legs! Go see for your self, just go to a nice fresh fish store and see the greed of some welfare card users.

    • Just Harvest October 13, 2017 at 3:41 pm #

      To balance out your anecdote, here are a few facts based on federal and state data as well as our own decades of experience with thousands of people on food stamps:

      First of all, the overwhelming majority of food stamps recipients are children as well as seniors and people with disabilities. Many of them, and most of the rest of food stamps recipients who aren’t earning enough to get by, pay taxes just like you do. They are paying into this program now or have in the past and will in the future. Working at least part-time is a requirement of receiving food stamps unless you’re a senior, disabled, or have dependents. Otherwise you only get 3 months of assistance in a 3-yr period.

      Second of all, this was “the second time” out of how many times you’ve seen people using ACCESS cards? Of the 1 in 7 people who use food stamps, how many of them do you think are living on crab legs? And if they do splurge for a special occasion — someone’s birthday, graduation, retirement party, wedding, wake — what do you think they’re eating the rest of the month? Or maybe they used that form of payment, the only one they have, but other family members will be helping with the cost?

      Judging and making assumptions is always quick and easy, and almost always wrong. Stop believing the BS legislators want you to believe about food stamp recipients and start wondering why they want you to believe them.

      Just Harvest

      • Ronald October 13, 2017 at 5:19 pm #

        Also, people do have their cards stolen and used without their permission, just like any other credit card or money, its not immune from theft. I witnessed first hand of access card benefit thefts many times. It’s a common occurrence. Just one case yesterday matter of fact where a mentally challenged gentleman had his whole October 2017 benefits stolen this month. How are we to believe all these stories about people using their card to buy extravagantly are even the actual benefit recipient? If the stories are even true.

    • Lisa G March 16, 2021 at 5:59 pm #

      It’s no ones business what’s in another’s food cart or how they pay . I find the subject : of note :
      – people will judge an access card user if they have crab legs or if they buy bologna .
      Good Lord they bought soda .
      Oh my they drove a new car .
      First off – do not judge lest you be judged .
      I have had to get food stamps after my husband was run over by a drunk driver . Both he and I have worked our whole lives .
      Yes I drive a nice car I work every day and make my payments . It is none of your business what goes in my food cart . I plan nice dinners and favor nutritious foods.
      BUT, I buy Gatorade for my boys. I have bought Easter basket goodies and candy. I have bought my Easter ham . How I spend MY Access money is none of anyone’s business .
      Those are MY tax dollars at work and my husbands- we worked DECADES paying in before needing help. . AND my sisters and brothers and mother and fathers worked and worked and put in – WHO ALL.. BTW have never had to have help or get food stamps . So it is MY family feeding ME and my family. How about that?

  12. TROY KING November 14, 2017 at 6:27 am #

    I’m past the point of feeling any shame. I was a skilled Tradesmen, got hurt on the job 5 surgeries I will never work again. I had to use my pension up and pay penalties for early withdrawal and taxes. Lost my home of 22 years and and the equity that was built up. Tried to sell the home but that was during the mortgage crash fiasco. At this point I could hardly give a damn what color the access card is. I get $162 a month for me and two kids, trust me we’re not eating steaks.

    • Lisa G March 16, 2021 at 6:03 pm #

      God Bless you ! Same boat for us after my husband was hit by a drunk driver.
      and so what if you were eating steaks – those are YOUR tax dollars at work for YOU and your family .

      Feel sorry for anyone that would judge a person for needing help to buy food . THEY are very sorry individuals not us .

  13. Matthew Simpson June 13, 2018 at 2:08 am #

    I have worked and paid into the system since my senior year of high school.
    I was diagnosed with cancer and am on disability through a program for people not expected to live. I get secondary insurance through an access card. I pay a premium for the coverage .It is unnecessary for the card to be so obvious that anyone in the office can see . It is not the end of the world but my situation sucks enough without adding the feeling of shame to it.

  14. T. August 5, 2018 at 12:17 pm #

    For those of you sitting in judgement of others……I just
    returned from teaching abroad for several years because my mother passed away. I have universal health coverage outside the US. But it isn’t accepted here. I will have a very well paying job in the fall. In the meantime, I had to apply for medicare, and was issued an ACCESS card, because the new tax laws penalize any working person who is uninsured by forcing them to pay for the months they are uninsured. This I learned from the accounting department at my new firm. SO, that said, BEFORE you judge someone, maybe, just maybe you should know their story. AND perhaps feel a little gratitude that YOU are not finding yourself in a similar situation.

  15. John Oliver August 30, 2018 at 2:16 pm #

    I want to thank the author for calling attention to something that never occurred to me before reading this article.

    Shame is a big motivator (or de-motivator) that is frequently used as a cudgel to keep people from getting the help they need. The entire process of getting SNAP and MA, at least in this state, specifically in Montgomery County, is absurd. It takes 17 calls to get through to anyone at the county assistance office (When I applied 3 years ago, it took over 100 attempts to get someone on the phone.) There are bureaucrats in these welfare offices that receive promotions if they can keep approvals to a minimum, be it for SNAP, MA, or unemployment.

    Despite getting an approval letter almost a month ago (a process I started back at the beginning of July), I have yet to receive my Medical Assistance card. In the case of MA, you do eventually receive a normal-looking insurance card, but unfortunately it takes so long to get the temporary, yellow ACCESS card, you only have that card for about 6 days before getting the permanent insurance card. It doesn’t do me a lot of good being approved for benefits if I never receive a card. By the time I get my cards, I will be working again since my unemployment benefits are almost extinguished, and once I start working again, I likely won’t be eligible for the MA.

    The irony is, it takes so long to be seen by a specialist, by the time my appointment date arrives, I’ll be uninsured again!

  16. Sam Burkett December 6, 2018 at 11:29 am #

    please do not look down upon people who use their card. someday they may be in the same position. all of us workers paid into this. it is not a crime to be going through difficult times.

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