EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 10, 2013

Column: Welfare fraud and abuse calls for new round of reform

Barbara Anderson
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — It’s been just over nine months since I learned that the welfare reform of the 1990s isn’t working anymore.

Reform began with Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson in Michigan, and was picked up here by Gov. Bill Weld. Both Republican and Democratic legislators got on board in 1994 after a local welfare mother became the poster woman for welfare abuse.

Clarabelle Ventura was said to have abused her 4-year-old son by plunging his hands into boiling water, then locking him in his room for weeks without treatment. She had five other children and was pregnant again when she was arrested; it was learned that she’d sold her food stamps, and a washing machine supposedly bought with lottery winnings, to buy drugs. Her family lived in a rent-subsidized apartment, a menu of welfare benefits; she sent her children out into the projects to beg for food, cigarettes and money. I don’t recall any mention of a known father for any of the children.

Soon after this expose, Massachusetts passed legislation calling for time-limited welfare assistance and tough work requirements. The next year the federal welfare system was reconstructed, with state governments given more autonomy over welfare delivery, while also reducing the federal government’s responsibilities. There were time limits and stricter conditions for food stamp eligibility, as well as reductions in immigrant welfare assistance.

And that was the last I heard about the subject, until I got the following email from someone last April:

Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) is an electronic system in the United States that allows state governments to provide taxpayer-funded welfare benefits by issuing a plastic debit card to use for food, certain services or cash. In Massachusetts, EBT cards are used to gamble, join health clubs, travel out of state, and get tattoos; to buy jewelry, guns, pornography, makeup, and tickets to movies and sporting events.

I thought this was a joke, until the story was picked up by the Boston Herald when local police complained about a heroin dealer who used his one phone call to ask an associate to “get my EBT card and go to the ATM and get the money to bail me out ...”. Apparently, sometime after the reforms of the mid-90s, food stamps were replaced by these little debit cards with which “poor people” can get almost anything.

Appalled as were legislators in 1994, two state representatives, Shaunna O’Connell, R-Taunton, and Russell Holmes, D-Boston, took up the cause of EBT card reform, and got a bipartisan bill passed that limited the goods and services for which the card could be used. However, it could still be used for cash, which meant all the other nonessential expenditures could continue.

Undaunted, Reps O’Connell and Holmes have filed two bills, HD 3378, to cut online payment for EBT cash recipients and HD 3384, to eliminate fraud in public assistance programs. Their efforts are boosted by a recent report from Inspector General Glenn Cunha’s office which estimates that Massachusetts taxpayers are paying $25 million a year to welfare recipients who may not be eligible to collect.

This story began last summer when we learned that taxpayers were paying $275,844 to send voter registration letters to 477,000 welfare recipients, along with postage-paid return envelopes. This was the result of a settlement with the liberal group Demos, chaired by Elizabeth Warren’s daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, that had somehow argued successfully that states should make more effort to get welfare recipients to vote. Pause here to wonder which senatorial candidate would be likely to get their support.

How convenient for now-Senator Warren: that mailing increased the voting rolls by 31,000 new voter registrations. But how embarrassing that 19,000 of those mailings were unable to be delivered to welfare recipients who, though missing, were still having their monthly EBT cards recharged by the so-called Department of Transitional Assistance.

Using a conservative estimate of $400 a month payment to each of the 19,000 “disappeared” welfare dependents, that’s $91 million a year in waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement that should have easily and immediately been eliminated. My partner Chip Ford had a plan: “Just terminate the plastic, revoke the account, stop making direct deposits into them until and unless the welfare phantoms resurface.”

Gov. Deval Patrick had a plan too: allow the state budget to fall into deficit and the state transportation infrastructure to fall into debt and decline, then announce a list of potential tax hikes. It’s so much easier to “ask” for new taxes to fund transportation and education than to “ask” for continued funding of welfare abuse.

Mustn’t forget to mention that 20,000 of the cards are “lost” and quickly replaced each month; some people show up in stores with more than one for allowed purchases, then resort to cash from the ATM machines for the purchases that aren’t permitted on the cards. Gov. Patrick says these stories are “anecdotal”, and refers to the cheating as “leakage” that he says his administration is attempting to address.

Meanwhile, Daniel Hurley, the commissioner of the so-called Department of Transitional Assistance, resigned after the release of the Inspector General’s report. Gov. Patrick replaced him with a former Democratic Party executive director and one of his own former campaign aides, with a mandate to reform the agency.

Reform welfare. Again?

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation and a regular contributor to the opinion pages.