Deborah Levenson: ‘Welfare reform’ bill in state unacceptable
To the editor:
New “welfare reform” legislation zoomed through the state Senate recently. It was rushed through as an “emergency law” with no public hearings. The legislation reflects what is becoming a familiar public agenda: cutting benefits, privatizing government services and increasing surveillance on U.S. citizens.
Among the bill’s provisions: a mandatory job diversion program before benefits even begin; transfer of that program from the Department of Transitional Assistance to the “quasi-public” Commonwealth Corp.; and a photo ID for Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards — previously eliminated by the Romney administration because it was expensive and ineffective at stopping fraud.
The legislative furor was spurred by state Auditor Suzanne Bump’s report indicating about a thousand cases of possible fraud involving benefits claimed for people already dead. Bump provided the Health and Human Services department only 178 cases of those cases to review, and they found at least a 50-percent error rate in the fraud report itself. Meanwhile, the Department of Welfare, under its new commissioner, Stacey Monahan, has already initiated new protocols to crosscheck applications against social security numbers and death records.
Other provisions of the new bill place more burdens on recipients already pummeled by bruising economic conditions. Some are unaccountably intrusive — such as requiring residents of public housing to report periodically on their children’s school attendance. While the legislation contains modest changes that could actually help some people transition from welfare, the costs are unacceptable — both financially and in terms of human dignity. Is this legislation even remotely in line with the report of fraud that spurred its passage? Using the report as cover to help create a sense of crisis, our legislators are further shredding the state’s safety net for its poorest citizens. There is no crisis. These policy changes deserve a public hearing.