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 Governor Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, and was picked up
here by Governor Bill Weld. Both Republican and Democrat legislators
got on board in 1994 after a local welfare mother became the poster
woman for welfare abuse.
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, had 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:
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 bi-partisan 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
non-essential expenditures could continue.
representatives 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 that estimates 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 47,000 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 47,000 "disappeared"
welfare dependents, that's $226 million of 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.”
Governor 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.
Hurley, the commissioner of the so-called Department of Transitional
Assistance, resigned after the release of the Inspector General’s
report. Governor 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?