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Oregon Finds Way to Save Money While Distributing Millions - 2004-06-27

Americans who lose their jobs are usually entitled to receive unemployment benefits, a weekly subsidy from their state government for a set period of time until they find another job. Oregon, with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, pays $16 million a week from its unemployment fund, plus administrative fees to process and send out the checks. Like many states, Oregon's unemployment rate is not going down. And with costs for other government services going up, the state is looking for ways to save some money.

Guy Felix spends a lot of afternoons watching the Willamette River roll through his hometown of Albany, Oregon. Like many here, he doesn't have a job. He's been unemployed for 14 months now, and although he'd rather be working for a paycheck, he says he's thrilled with Oregon's new unemployment program.

"Overall it is a lot easier than cashing a check," he said. "That's a trip to the bank, and then you're carrying cash around, or what have you. It's just like a Visa."

That's because it is a Visa, issued by a commercial bank, and bearing the blue and yellow Visa card logo. But, as Tom Fuller, with the Oregon Employment Department explains, it's not a credit card.

"The Reliacard is a prepaid card that we put their unemployment insurance benefits into, and then they can use it just like a Visa card is used anywhere in the world to expend their unemployment insurance benefits," he said.

Mr. Fuller predicts the program will save Oregon a lot of money. "It costs the state about $1.50 to set up each account, but after that it's only seven cents for us to deposit their unemployment insurance benefits into their card," explained Mr. Fuller.

That's a half dollar less than the 58 cents Oregon pays for every unemployment check it cuts. With the third highest unemployment rate in the nation, that adds up. In addition, Oregon still spends a lot each month to deal with stolen, lost or returned checks.

But state officials say Reliacard's real strength is that it benefits people who don't have bank accounts or credit cards. Before the program began, the only way they could redeem their unemployment benefits was through expensive check cashing services. With the card in their wallet, users don't have to carry around large amounts of cash, reducing the potential risk of theft. And, as Guy Felix points out, the card makes it much easier to stay current on monthly bills, like electricity and rent.

"I just have them draw off that automatically every month, and then that way I don't have to deal with them directly, or mail them anything," said Mr. Felix.

But, that ease and convenience can lead to problems. Unless they make an effort to keep track of their purchases, cardholders can easily overspend, depleting their monthly funds quickly without realizing it. The Oregon Employment Department acknowledges that risk, and officials say they're offering advice and suggestions to promote responsible use. The number of unemployed Oregonians using the Reliacard is small. However, the state is just starting to promote the program and expects participation to grow. Other states are taking notice. The Oregon Employment Department says that five other states have contacted them for information about the Reliacard, and Utah is close to offering a similar program. For Main Street, I'm David Welch in Portland.