The Not-So-Progressive Politics of the State House

War-on-Poverty

The Audit

As addressed in a previous blog post, on May 28th State Auditor Suzanne Bump released the official audit of the Department of Transitional Assistance, beginning July 1st, 2010 until December 21st, 2012.  Some of the results are as follows:

  • We found that, from July 1, 2010 through April 24, 2012, 1,164 recipients receiving SNAP, TAFDC, or EAEDC benefits were deceased or were using a deceased individual’s Social Security Number (SSN). We estimate that these 1,164 recipients received approximately $2.39 million in questionable public assistance benefits during this period. We brought this matter to the attention of DTA officials, who indicated that DTA either has taken or is in the process of taking a number of steps to improve its controls in this area, including a July 2012 integration of the Death Match Master File. In order to assess the effectiveness of these controls, OSA staff randomly selected 283 of the 1,164 deceased recipients’ EBT accounts identified during our match and found that 190 recipients (67%) were still shown as having active accounts as of August 31, 2012.
  • For the period July 1, 2010 through September 30, 2012, we identified 26 individuals who were using two SSNs. These individuals all had two SSNs and separate active payment streams associated with them, yet had the same name, lived at the same address, and were approximately the same age. We determined that over $662,000 in questionable payments had been received by these recipients during this period.
  •  We determined that, from July 1, 2010 through September 30, 2012, 21 SSNs were being used by more than one individual. These individuals had the same SSN, yet had different names and different dates of birth. We determined that over $359,000 in questionable payments had been received by these recipients during this period.

After this audit got released, both Governor Deval Patrick and Representative Tom Conroy came out in question of the audit. Here is some of what Representative Conroy said:

“One wonders about castigating an agency like DTA that gets it 99 percent right, when the office conducting the review of the agency gets it nearly 50 percent wrong,” Rep. Tom Conroy, a Wayland Democrat and one-time U.S. Senate candidate wrote in a letter to Bump, which detailed what Conroy said were “significant inaccuracies.”

A co-chairman of the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development with a professional history in financial services, Conroy said “one of the most prominent reasons” for fraud is a lack of resources at DTA. Conroy suggested future audits looking into “tax cheats,” comparing the age of government computers versus those in the private sector, and the money it would take to speed up bridge repairs in the state.

Governor Patrick reiterated Representative Tom Conroy’s charge stating:

“The audit is infuriating on two levels. First off, any one dollar that goes to somebody who isn’t entitled to it, particularly in the welfare system, is as infuriating to me as it is to everyone else,” Patrick said. “But the other thing is that this audit report is of questionable accuracy. We were given only 178 of the cases on which it relies and nine out of 10 of the conclusions in those cases were wrong.”

Auditor Bump responded with:

“We took (the Department of Transitional Assistance’s) data, matched it against the Social Security Administration’s data, and that’s how we came to our conclusions. It represents a snapshot in time and it was months ago. So I would expect that by now, some of these names would be purged from the system or errors corrected, so I would expect a different number,” Bump said. “But when we did it, that’s what the match-up showed.”

It has also been stated that prosecution charges may occur:

“We have requested access to all of the cases mentioned in the audit, so we can conduct a full review of each case, said Department of Transitional ­Assistance spokesman Matt Kitsos. “These errors highlight the need for a full review.”

But the auditor’s office retort­ed that welfare officials have not explained how they concluded that the 178 dependents figure was inaccurate and noted that a separate federal ­review last year also found hundreds of dead beneficiaries on the Massachusetts welfare rolls.

“We cannot just accept what an agency says based on their word,” Bump said, explaining that the department has repeatedly declined to provide supporting documents to auditors. The auditor’s office acknowledged that it has responded in kind by refusing to provide the list of 1,164 dead recipients.

Regardless of the exact number of suspicious welfare payments, one lawmaker urged the state to aggressively pursue charges against anyone who wrongfully obtained benefits. In all, more than 885,000 people received cash or food assistance from the agency, or one in seven Massachusetts residents, at a cost of $1.7 billion last year.

“I think the harshest penalties need to be imposed to send a strong message that we are not going to tolerate fraud in public assistance programs,” said Representative Shaunna O’Connell, a Taunton Republican, who has been pushing for legislation to make it more difficult to qualify for public assistance.

the-poverty-scapegoat

Setting the Stage

Since 2008, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has been hit with a recession. It wasn’t until March 2013 that the state finally regained all the jobs lost during this period of time.

Equally during this period of time though, there has been massive cuts to social service programs throughout the Commonwealth, including the highest amount in 20 years:

Gov. Deval Patrick Wednesday unveiled a fiscal 2012 spending plan that would slash $570 million, or 1.8%, from last year’s budget, hitting social services, health care and aid to municipalities in particular.

Among the cuts:

  • Closing two prisons

  • Reducing state aid by $65 million

  • Shedding as many as 900 jobs, adding to the 5,900 eliminated since late 2008.

  • Eliminating employment services for those on transitional assistance

  • Cutting benefits for those enrolled in MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program

  • Slashing $23 million in spending on emergency homeless shelters

In case you didn’t miss this, it does say that employment services for those on transitional assistance was eliminated. Furthermore, it also does say that they slashed $24 million for the budget on emergency homeless shelters. What does that mean? I’m sure you can answer this for me, because it seems obvious to me what this means for those using these services.

Earlier this year, State Representative Tom Scannicandro wrote a column for State House News detailing the effects of these cuts and how misguided it all really is:

Sannicandro-EBT-column

Only in July of last year, Governor Deval Patrick signed welfare reform into law:

As part of the welfare reform bill he signed Friday, Mass. Governor Deval Patrick says his administration will not enforce restrictions on the use of the EBT cards for the purchase of items such as cigarettes, liquor, lottery tickets and tattoos. In a letter to lawmakers, Patrick said it was “not feasible” to enforce the ban – something Democrats and Republicans wanted as well as taxpayers.

Beginning on March 1st of this year, sequester cuts have also begun to take effect. The cuts include:

  • Massachusetts will lose about $300,000 in Justice Assistance Grants that support law enforcement, prosecution and courts, crime prevention and education, corrections and community corrections, drug treatment and enforcement, and crime victim and witness initiatives.
  • Massachusetts will lose about $787,000 in funding for job search assistance, referral, and placement, meaning around 26,970 fewer people will get the help and skills they need to find employment.
  • Massachusetts will lose approximately $625,000 in funds to help upgrade its ability to respond to public health threats including infectious diseases, natural disasters, and biological, chemical, nuclear, and radiological events. In addition, Massachusetts will lose about $1.7 million in grants to help prevent and treat substance abuse, resulting in around 5,200 fewer admissions to substance abuse programs. And the Massachusetts State Department of Public Health will lose about $367,000 resulting in around 9,200 fewer HIV tests.
  • Massachusetts could lose up to $140,000 in funds that provide services to victims of domestic violence, resulting in up to 500 fewer victims being served.

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Sweeping Legislation

Following the revelation that welfare fraud was occurring, Senate President Therese Murray vowed to file a comprehensive welfare reform bill in the next few weeks. By June 2013, Senate Leaders came up with a new plan on welfare:

Senate President Therese Murray, a Democrat, says the $40 million proposal will reduce waste and abuse, while making it easier for beneficiaries to get work and get off the rolls.

Murray was an architect of Massachusetts’ last major welfare overhaul, in 1995. Since then, she says, the state has routinely waived some safeguards against abuse.

“The system has been stagnant for a long time,” Murray said, “and we want to shake up the system and give people some hope, too.”

As part of Murray’s plan, able-bodied welfare applicants would have to prove they’d searched for work before showing up at the welfare office. Once accepted, they’d receive training and guidance and, if that fails to produce a job, full-time work would be required through a program run by the Commonwealth Corporation, a nonprofit that has experience matching low-income workers with employers.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Stephen Brewer says if an applicant lies about a job search, perjury charges could result.

“There’s meaningfulness and honesty about this and you can see that it is cut across a wide swath,” he said, “and I believe progressives and conservatives can support this — not just being punitive, but being progressive.”

However, there are some things to consider in this master plan. According to an earlier news report, the Department of Transitional Assistance had the technology to catch welfare fraud:

“They had the ability to catch it,” said Barry Ahearn, an official in Bump’s office. After the hearing, he described the ease of the checking procedure, saying, “You have to take the data. You have to put it in a specific formula and run it against the database, but it’s not a difficult task.”

Bump, who said her recent audit was the first the office has conducted into the state’s EBT cards, said in some cases the DTA would temporarily permit someone to receive benefits without any Social Security number, and would then never follow up to add the number to the record.

There seems to be some confusion on documentation and whether employees have inappropriately used the EBT cards:

Five regional DTA offices could not provide documentation for what happened to 30,000 blank EBT cards, the auditors said, raising questions about security and whether employees may have inappropriately used the cards, which work much like debit cards to allow welfare benefits to make purchases. The audit did not identify any specific criminal activity.

And furthermore:

“Past internal investigations have found DTA employees misusing blank EBT cards to access recipients’ benefits inappropriately.”

Despite all of this, the Senate still passed a welfare reform bill by June to prevent EBT fraud:

For Senate President Therese Murray, the legislation means that recipients will be encouraged to reach economic independence.

“The changes approved in this bill will provide those who are ready and able to work with the support needed to move forward and live independently,” Senate President Murray said. “Helping our residents enter the workforce and lead successful and self-sustaining lives will help our economy grow and will support the overall health of the Commonwealth.”

Under this legislation, applicants will be required to search for a job before they receive cash assistance. This replaces the current regulations “that provide recipients with a 60-day window after they start receiving benefits before they are required to look for a job.”

This bill will also create a job diversion program through DTA and the Commonwealth Corporation to connect individuals with full-time jobs before they receive benefits.

The House would later agree on to the new reforms:

House and Senate negotiators have agreed to require photo IDs on electronic benefit transfer cards for most welfare recipients.

The provision was attached to an appropriations bill that addressed shortfalls in funding in the state fiscal year that ended on Sunday.

The proposal would require photo IDs to be placed on EBT cards used by recipients over the age of 18, but would exempt the elderly and disabled from the requirement.

welfare-queen-what-politics-1346118451

Welfare Queens

In late June, Huffington Post released an article detailing U.S. Representative Louis Gohmert arguing against food stamps. His accusation is that beneficiaries are purchasing King Crab Legs and other lavish items while on food stamps in Texas.

“He looks at the king crab legs [being bought by a person with food stamps] and looks at his ground meat and realizes because he does pay income tax, he doesn’t get more back than he pays in. He is actually helping pay for the king crab legs when he can’t pay for them for himself,” Gohmert said.

“People across the aisle want to condemn anyone who is working, and scraping, and can’t save any money,” he continued.

Republican-backed cuts to food stamps unexpectedly derailed a trillion-dollar piece of legislation known as the farm bill on Thursday.

In the same speech, Gohmert also suggested that it shouldn’t be controversial to discuss cutting food stamps because some poor people are obese.

But of course, that is Texas politics, not the Blue State of Massachusetts politics where we know better. As stated earlier in the audit, out of the many people who happen to use the welfare services throughout the Commonwealth, who live in every neighborhood, every city, every town, and are scattered as far out as Springfield and as near to the State House as Roxbury – only 178 cases were found of welfare fraud. Yes, 178. That’s not even 200.

Of the 1,164 cases that were issued to dead people, the question arises why the State would issue checks to the dead in the first place. This is that State’s fault, not the welfare recipients fault.

A couple editorials have come out not that far off from U. S. Representative Louis Gohmert’s statements. This is one example:

Photo IDs would make it harder for the heirs to cash in grandma’s EBT card. It would also make it harder for recipients to sell their EBT cards, or for fraudsters to sign up for multiple cards.

Unfortunately, back in the 1990s, several state and federal welfare laws passed that actually contributed to creating extreme poverty.

According to a recent study by the National Poverty Center, the prevalence of extreme poverty has skyrocketed since 1996, especially among those targeted by the 1996 federal welfare reform. Between 1996 and 2011 there was an increase in extreme poverty among US households with children. (“Extreme poverty” is defined as having $2 or less, per person, per day.)

In the midst of the slow recovery following the Great Recession, millions of parents are experiencing long spells of unemployment, but they have little immediate access to means-tested cash support.

Nearly 16 million children in the United States — 22 percent of all children — live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level — $23,021 a year for a family of four. On average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 45 percent of children live in low-income families.

According to Census data , the percentage of married couple families nationwide living in poverty was 6.2 percent in 2011. For households headed by single mothers, the poverty rate was 31.2 percent.

Are those numbers that Murray would consider a success?

Such passage of legislation is also pushing Southern States into extreme poverty by voting conservatively on legislation, rather than liberal:

The data show that despite improvements in education and health nationally, Republicans have accomplished their goal of seriously setting back progress when it comes to the economic well-being of children in Republican-controlled Southern states. It is bad enough that the richest nation on Earth comes in at number 2 in the world with over 23% of its children living in extreme poverty, but the numbers are worse in the bottom five states that, not coincidentally, are controlled by Republicans on a path to increase poverty and keep their poorest and youngest residents hungry, homeless, and in ill-health.

In the new worst state for children’s well-being, New Mexico, 31% of children live in extreme poverty and they can be proud their child poverty numbers are slightly better than Mississippi that boasts 32% of its children suffering extreme poverty. In both states the primary reason for dire poverty numbers is that over 37% of the states’ children have parents who lack secure employment and decent wages. New Mexico is only the worst state because Mississippi does not have as high a number of children without healthcare or early childhood education as New Mexico, but the state’s Republicans have a solution to that problem; reject Medicaid expansion, hope Republicans in Congress obstruct President Obama’ early education expansion, legislate larger cuts to education, and of course slash food stamps to make room for oil, religious, banking, and agriculture subsidies as well as corporate and the wealthy’s tax loopholes.

The bottom five states are rounded out by Louisiana, Nevada, and Arizona and each of the five worst states for children have specific commonalities contributing to the bleak prospects for the survival, let alone well-being, of the poorest residents and their children. All of the states, save New Mexico, enacted right to work (for less) laws that contribute to more people in poverty due to pathetic wages while corporations in each state are thriving with record profits. Two of the states, Mississippi and Louisiana, have rejected Medicaid expansion regardless there is no expense to the states until 2017 and then the maximum cost for Mississippi in particular is only 7.6%  with the federal government picking up the remaining 92.4% of the expense. In all, there are 13 states not participating in the free expansion and 6 others leaning toward non-participation and to no-one’s surprise, all 19 states are Republican-controlled and more than pleased to prevent millions of their residents, especially children, from benefiting from the most basic healthcare provisions. From a Republican perspective, it likely makes sense to keep the poorest, and youngest, residents in ill-health to go along with daily hunger to round out an existence steeped in suffering and despair.

welfare-id-large

Photo IDs Don’t Work

Despite recent experience showing that photo IDs don’t work when it comes to welfare reform, it’s still acknowledged that both the House and the Senate still passed this reform. According to a Letter to the Editor in the Boston Globe:

Massachusetts already tried putting photos on the cards used by welfare recipients to access benefits over a decade ago. Governor Mitt Romney pulled the plug after finding it was a costly and ineffective venture. New York ended universal photo ID in 2012. Ignoring past experience, it defies reason that Massachusetts would be the only state to reinstate this costly and ineffective practice when better tools exist to target and address alleged benefits fraud.

What are the costs? First, the obvious and significant costs of installing or borrowing photo ID equipment, increased staffing, and creating a more expensive EBT card than the current PIN-protected card. Second, the costs involved in getting low-income food stamp applicants — notably seniors, persons with disabilities, and rural residents — to locations that actually take photos. There’s also the costs of Massachusetts turning away 100 percent federally funded SNAP nutrition benefits to low-income residents who increasingly feel targeted, stigmatized, and too discouraged to seek these critical benefits.

Governor Deval Patrick has also expressed an openness to adding photo IDs on EBT cards:

Gov. Deval Patrick, who disputed the scope of the auditor’s report, has said he would be open to requiring photos on the cards. But he also noted that former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney’s administration nixed the idea of photos when the cards were introduced in 2004 after determining that the benefits of photo IDs did not justify the expense involved in implementing the system.

Conclusions

Despite all the recent cuts made to the very services many have needed in the Commonwealth in order to survive and get out of poverty, the State Legislature still decided to take punitive measures onto the poorest families in the entire Commonwealth, mainly due to the actions of about 200. This happened regardless of having the technology already available to detect fraud in the welfare system and DTA staff have been misusing their positions to aide those seeking services. 

Whether the theft that plagued a Boston Commission on Public Health homeless shelter remains resolved is unknown, even after a “figure” in the shelter theft had resigned.

The State Treasurer, Steve Grossman, and a former aide at the Massachusetts State Senate have both expressed imporvements in technology reform in order to improve the systems being used.

From Grossman’s Press Release:

   The Treasurer said, “I am prepared to be a strong partner with Governor Deval Patrick, Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz, and interim DTA director Stacey Monahan in their ongoing reform initiatives. The new technology will provide them with the tools they need to succeed.” The Treasurer’s Office had pushed for changes to the bidding specifications that would require state-of-the-art anti-fraud safeguards as well as compliance with new restrictions on card use enacted by the Legislature.

The Treasurer’s Office and DTA jointly oversee the procurement for the EBT program – ATM and credit card-like cards that provide recipients of transitional assistance with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – also known as Food Stamps) and cash benefits. Reports by the Inspector General, State Auditor, and news organizations have uncovered alleged abuse of the cards – such as ineligible persons receiving aid or funds being spent on unauthorized products and services.

From former legislative aide, Melissa Threadgill:

If you were surprised to learn that the Department of Transitional Assistance’s database isn’t automatically updated when a client dies, you’ve clearly never wrestled with a government computer system. While tech whizzes in Kendall Square develop the latest in mobile apps and cloud computing, civil servants across the state work with technology that is years out of date.

Following a state audit released last week that found the agency gave $18 million in suspicious welfare payments, there have been calls for “entitlement reform.” But making poor families jump through additional hoops or restricting eligibility won’t fix the problem. We don’t need entitlement reform — we need data reform.

I’ve never seen the databases used by the Department of Transitional Assistance. But if they are anything like other government computer systems I have seen, they are clunky, slow, difficult to navigate, and prone to crashing. They are also likely built on proprietary technology, which means they are infrequently updated, don’t easily interface with the databases of other state and federal agencies, and, when they break, can only be fixed by the company that designed them.

Following these statements being released, there is currently no indication that technology reform was presented in the comprehensive welfare reform agreed by both the House and Senate, just that it included adding photo IDs to the cards that welfare recipients use. Nor is there any indication that the five regional offices who couldn’t provide any documentation for thousands of cards, or simply where some of the basic items used in the offices were located, have had a change of leadership to make the system work better and prevent mistakes from occurring.

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