, Salem, MA

June 4, 2013

Our view: Time to begin reforming welfare is now

The Salem News

---- — It took an army of the dead to do it, but it seems the Massachusetts Legislature has awakened to the need for some meaningful changes in the state’s welfare system.

The dead are the 1,164 welfare recipients who a state audit found continued to receive public assistance long after departing this world. Or, we should say, “began to receive,” because in some cases the departed didn’t begin “collecting” until after they had gone to meet their maker. Payments continued for as long as two years or more after the beneficiaries’ demise.

The total cost of the “questionable public assistance benefits” to the deceased during the period examined by state Auditor Suzanne Bump’s team: $2.4 million.

In the typical case, the audit found, electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards sent to the deceased were used by the living to purchase things or draw cash.

The audit found other fraud indicators: $27 million in EBT benefits collected out of state or out of country in just six months, $15 million in suspicious EBT transactions that went uninvestigated, the disappearance of 30,000 EBT cards from one Department of Transitional Assistance office and much more.

All of this comes on top of earlier reports that the DTA failed to verify the eligibility of recipients who collected $25 million in benefits and did not know the whereabouts of another 19,000 recipients.

Defenders of the welfare system, like Gov. Deval Patrick, claim to be outraged about any welfare fraud but, at the same time, claim it is insignificant and bristle at questions about what they are doing about it.

The short answer is nothing.

If Patrick remains in denial about welfare fraud, the Democratic leaders of the Legislature acknowledge there’s a big problem and propose to do something about it.

That includes requiring a photo ID on EBT cards to prevent people from collecting benefits they’re not entitled to.

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 and for fraudsters to sign up for multiple cards.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions with law enforcement personnel who have told us about the multiple identities,” Senate President Therese Murray told the State House News Service. “When they arrest some people, they have multiple identities on them, including multiple EBT cards and Social Security cards.”

House Speaker Robert DeLeo also backs photo IDs. In fact, the House budget called for photo IDs with the start of the new fiscal year on July 1. The Senate killed that provision in its version of the budget. Murray said what was needed was a comprehensive reform plan.

DeLeo would still prefer to make a photo ID requirement part of the budget — and so would we — because it would guarantee quick action. A comprehensive reform bill might take months, or years, to pass.

Murray wants a package of reforms that would also include reducing the number of waivers exempting recipients from the welfare-to-work requirements enacted as part of reform legislation passed in 1995.

Murray would also put a stop to a scam that involved transferring custody of a child from a parent to a child to keep the welfare flowing, according to the State House News Service. And she would look into the habit some recipients are reported to have of moving to warmer climes in winter while still collecting.

Yes, the welfare system needs a thorough overhaul, but there’s no reason to wait to implement the photo ID requirement, a simple and practical way to deter fraud.

Massachusetts citizens, like Americans in general, are generous people willing to come to the aid of those who need help. Just witness the outpouring of support, financial and otherwise, after the Boston Marathon bombing.

But their support evaporates when they suspect the system is being gamed or abused, as the welfare system clearly is. Their patience is growing short.

Those who want to preserve the welfare system for those who really need assistance need to fix it and now.