Earlier this week, a state audit found that Massachusetts doled out an astonishing $18 million in dubious “public assistance benefits” between July 2010 and August 2012. These include payments totalling $2.4 million to over 1,160 people who were either deceased or who used a deceased person’s Social Security number to collect benefits, and $15 million of suspicious transactions with electronic benefit cards. The latter includes instances of the withdrawal of all food benefits at once, purchases made states away from the card holder’s residency, regular withdrawals of even bill sizes, and withdrawals using a card’s PIN but without swiping the card.
State Auditor Suzanne Bump reassured the media that the majority of Massachusetts’ $1.7 billion per year spent on welfare programs was used appropriately. Furthermore, the Department of Transitional Assistance explained that it had begun the address the problem more than a year ago by comparing its welfare rolls to the Social Security Administration’s official list of deceased persons. Stacy Monahan, interim director of the department, added that they were also comparing their lists to records from the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Revenue.
But Massachusetts is no stranger to problems with its welfare system. Monahan’s predecessor resigned after an investigation found that the department “failed to verify recipients’ eligibility, potentially costing taxpayers $25 million a year in unwarranted payments.” This was only part of the shoddy vetting: Tens of thousands of voter registration forms were returned as undeliverable, and there were “26 instances where people were using multiple Social Security numbers to receive extra payments, 21 cases where the same Social Security number was used by multiple people, and 40 cases where at least two different people both claimed the same person as a dependent.”
The federal Department of Agriculture is demanding that Massachusetts pay back $27 million as compensation for the misdirected food stamp benefits.
It is clear from these two investigations that the Massachusetts welfare system is rife with fraud and poor handling of information. While fraud and record keeping problems will inevitably occur, the magnitude of these failures suggests that negligence, and not just error, was involved. In fact, Bump’s audit report explains that the DTA failed to use numerous reports available to it to monitor various assistance programs.
The auditor’s report recommends several measures designed to improve the DTA’s enforcement and record-keeping, such as performing regular comparisons of its welfare rolls to official death lists, implementing data-analysis measures, improved security for blank EBT card shipments, and improved review of all background eligibility documents. If implemented wisely, these could all have a noticeable impact on the occurrence of fraud, waste, and negligence. But this is only half of what ought to be done. It isn’t enough to implement preventative measures, but when a failure of this size happens, those responsible need to be held responsible — especially when the citizens of Massachusetts will have to bear the burden of these bureaucrats' failings, one way or another. An investigation should be conducted and those responsible should be summarily fired.
Indeed, this is a perfect opportunity to consider whether the entire state-based, bureaucratic welfare system ought to be dismantled, or at least scaled back, in favor of a decentralized, community-based assistance system. There are several reasons why this would be a positive step forward, but one of the more relevant reasons is that when assistance occurs on a more local, immediate level, those assisting will oftentimes have better access to relevant knowledge, and furthermore, the methods of assistance can be less susceptible to fraud and oversight.
Obviously abolishing the existing welfare system overnight would be disastrous. But at the very least, not only should the recommended reforms be made and those responsible dismissed, Massachusettsans should consider the benefits of taking upon themselves the call to aid others, rather than relying on bureaucrats to do it for them.