Welfare audit feeds anti-government hostility by Marjorie Arons-Barrron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

Former State Senate President Billy Bulger used to joke that, when he died, he wanted to be buried at St. Augustine’s because he could still remain politically active.  Now, thanks to State Auditor Suzanne Bump and Tuesday’s report on fraud and abuse in the state’s welfare system, we know that there are other forms of life after death.  In fact, over the last couple of years, the state’s Department of Transitional Assistance has provided benefits to 1164 dead people.

The DTA also made life easier for a bunch of living ineligibles.  One hundred forty-seven thousand replacement EBT (electronic benefits cards) went to 9846 people, with some individuals getting 30 or more replacement cards. Wouldn’t you think that when one person was issued 127 replacement cards, some bureaucrat would have noticed?  Some cards were used in Alaska, Hawaii, Florida and Las Vegas. Doesn’t that make hardworking taxpayers feel good, that they’re financing some freeloaders’ vacationing lifestyles?

All told, the audit report suggests some $18 million in “questionable” payments between July 2010 and December 2012.  With all the electronic tracking done on people these days (to a fault in many cases), wouldn’t you think state bureaucrats could do more cross-checking?  Apparently, interim director Stacey Monahan of the Department of Transitional Assistance (formerly the welfare department) maintains the agency has already instituted some procedural reforms. Monahan correctly said that even one dollar lost to fraud is too much.  But if you read the reported, posted online, note that on pages 16 & 17, certain reforms claimed to have been put in place have not, in fact, been followed.

State law mandates that audits be done every three years.  But Bump told me they can go back to DTA in six months and, while not doing an actual audit, take the measure of how well the agency is implementing the audit’s recommendations.

Two additional observations. 1) Bump has comported herself well this week, coolly projecting fact-based competence, and not grandstanding.  (She says she has always seen the mission of the auditor’s office to make government programs better not to bring them down.)  2) Governor Patrick has been AWOL, whereas he should have been expressing outrage and holding the bureaucracy responsibility for setting the system straight.

The total lack of accountability is not just about the unfairness to hard-working taxpayers, which is real. Undermining support for the system and diverting millions of dollars to fraud and abuse hurts those who have legitimate needs for income and food assistance, and it feeds the  kinds of welfare recipient stereotypes we haven’t seen seen the Reagan administration. The urgency to clean up the mess is a no-brainer.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

5 Responses to Welfare audit feeds anti-government hostility by Marjorie Arons-Barrron

  1. Joe S says:

    There are really two problems here the obvious one being the abuse of the system. But maybe the more important one from a total cost point-of-view is why there are so many people in the system in the first place.

    The abuse problem is relatively small when looking at the State budget, maybe in the order of 0.1% of the total State spending. But despite that low percentage, it is important from the point-of-view that hard-working taxpayers feel violated by the perpetrators of the fraud, and that is sufficient reason to have a much better control system.

    The total need may be the more difficult nut to crack, as some is due to the poor economy, but a good amount is due to the lack of health of many of the citizens. And with much of that lack of health being self-inflicted, there is another element where the general populace feels that they are being offended. Maybe those cases have to be treated in a different manner.

  2. kad barma says:

    It would be useful if D partisans would acknowledge the reasonable basis of certain R criticism without going apoplectic, just as surely as it would be useful if R partisans could separate their ad hominem animosities from legitimate grievance so that the worthwhile stuff could be more constructively received.

    Here is an extremely useful case in point that suggests that better government scrutiny over benefit programs is necessary. It shouldn’t be considered partisan to point that out. I fault both sides in our having reached this point. Kudos to folks like Ms Bump who make good government the priority, not partisanship.

  3. Steve says:

    Very clear statement of the issue. Nice job, Marjorie.

    Makes me think of the film Cinderella Man about a Depression era boxer whose name I forget. After he broke his hand in the ring he wound up on welfare. When the hand healed and he started to make money again, he went down to the welfare office and presented a roll of money.
    “What’s this?” the clerk asks.
    “That’s all the money you gave me when I was out of work. I came to pay it back.”

    How far have we gone in the opposite direction?

  4. Greg Page says:

    Sometimes I am afraid of this ‘opposite direction’ that Steve is referencing.

    Here’s an example: The Post 9/11 GI Bill did not even exist when most of the people currently using it joined the military. Some paid in for the far less generous Montgomery GI Bill ($100 x first 12 months for $1200 ‘buy in,’ which got you roughly $36k in total benefits over 3 years), while others did not.

    When the Post 9/11 GI Bill was passed into law, everyone w/the requisite active duty time was automatically declared eligible…to use it themselves, or to pass the benefit on to progeny.

    It pays up to $18,700 in tuition PER YEAR for up to 36 months of education in addition to a very generous housing allowance…for instance, if your school ZIP code was 01854, you would get $2373 non-taxable per month of school, pro-rated for partial months of the academic calendar.

    Pretty sweet, eh? Most people are grateful, but it’s not uncommon to hear people talk of being *screwed* because they don’t receive the housing allowance in the summer, or during winter break, and because the 18,700 doesn’t carry the full freight of their tuition.

    It’s a funny way to define *screwed* when you say that when someone gives you a massive amount of money that you never really knew was coming in the first place, you’re getting done over when it’s not enough. (and as you can imagine, the language is often much more colorful than *screwed*). And this is coming from a very conservative group!

    Another quick anecdote before I jump off of my soapbox: My wife works at the CVS on Bridge St. Every day, people scream bloody murder because they are asked to cover the MassHealth co-pay for a prescription. Even though the co-pay cost is < the cost of the Coke bottle in their hand, that irony is completely lost on the aggrieved party. When a co-pay goes up — even by a tiny amount, which still only covers a tiny percent of the true cost, people respond as if they've been personally violated.

    Whatever your political persuasion or your feelings about what makes a society just, I think it's fair to say that whenever an entitlement is created, so is an expectation. People like Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson can point us towards the budgetary promised land, but until the people up for re-election every two years can make the tough calls about programs like Social Security and Medicare, it's going to be quite a toboggan ride.

  5. Joe S says:

    Greg, yes there is an expectation created, but more than that there may be a life plan created, one that is based on the promise of a certain benefit. That is why so often cutbacks have an exemption or grendfather clause to limit the effect on those who have bought into the expectation.