The Massachusetts House recently passed a comprehensive welfare reform bill. The impetus for reform arose primarily from concern about potential waste and fraud in welfare programs as highlighted in reports by the Inspector General and State Auditor. For instance, some deceased recipients were still active in the system; some “dependents” had more than one guardian claiming them, thus leading to duplication of benefits. Despite the heated headlines that followed, it is important to note that the amount of questionable spending identified was less than one percent (1%) of the overall welfare budget.
When we discuss the term “welfare” in Massachusetts, we are for the most part considering two programs. The first is Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC), state and federal money in the form of direct cash assistance to needy individuals. The other main program is commonly known as “food stamps,” the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is federally funded but administered at the state level. Recipients of these programs typically access their benefits through use of an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card (essentially a debit card). These programs are managed by the state Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), an agency that serves nearly one million Massachusetts residents.
It is important to note that even before comprehensive legislation was debated, significant welfare reform occurred through the budget process. For instance, the Bureau of Program Integrity was created, an independent division charged with the obligation to conduct oversight of welfare programs. Moreover, the Governor appointed a new leader of the DTA, Stacey Monahan, who immediately launched a series of useful initiatives to improve the accurate functioning of the system, including stepped up investigations, and data sharing with other government agencies. In other words, much was already being done even before broad legislation took shape.
The State Senate acted first and some of the provisions in the Senate bill were encouraging, including at least an additional $5 Million for job training to move people toward work and the allocation of more resources to DTA to help overburdened caseworkers (who handle 1,000 cases on average). Yet, many of the burdens placed on those seeking benefits seemed unreasonably high and unlikely to achieve the desired goal. As a result, advocates took the summer and fall to meet as a coalition, while elected officials and staff also met to prepare for the debate. I met with House Speaker Robert DeLeo to make my case, more than once. I argued that while combatting waste and fraud is clearly important, our main goal should be to give people pathways out of poverty, which in the end is what will really turn around lives and save taxpayers money. He listened with an open mind and was interested in finding common ground.
When the House bill was released for review, it was similar to the Senate bill and I was torn but leaning toward a “No” vote. There were just too many provisions that I thought had the potential to harm our neediest. On the day of the debate, House leadership met with a small but committed group of Democratic legislators several times to negotiate with us. Ultimately, a compromise was agreed upon, helping both to improve the bill as well as earn a unanimous vote. The House and Senate bills now go to conference committee before we vote on a final version. Notable differences between the House and Senate bills include: a) an improved disability exemption from work requirements, keeping up to 4500 families on benefits who would otherwise be vulnerable; b) the establishment of a poverty commission (the budget for which was doubled based on an amendment I offered); c) additional time for families to assert “good cause” for not fulfilling job search requirements; and d) counting education and training programs towards work requirements for an additional year.
While the bill is far from perfect, it does make substantive improvements in some areas. Perhaps now more than any other time of year, we need to remember the less fortunate and help them overcome the big obstacles they face. I hope this legislation is a start down that path.