Let them have shampoo! Woah…wait! Huh?!
Let them have EBT photo cards!! Wait…why??
And the Senate votes tomorrow?
Some of you may recall our MRVP Cookie Day event in 2013 where I delayed my speech to the audience by applying lip gloss and lotion as I approached the podium. Many sat in bewilderment not realizing my intent was to create a distraction from the real purpose of the day in advocating for more MRVP resources, mimicking the distraction caused by a provision proposed to the previous year’s budget that would have banned TAFDC recipients from spending cash assistance on cosmetics, save a bar of soap.
While families continued to suffer from, as they do today, the hardships of poverty and homelessness, the advocates who work to ensure appropriate resources to move them out of these situations were busy defending a person’s right to purchase shampoo, deodorant, lotion, lip gloss, or as stated in the proposed legislation, any cosmetic product “poured, sprinkled, sprayed onto or inserted into the human body…” So, while we were trying to dedicate all of our resources to fighting for more housing resources for homeless families, this distraction forced us to spend time in defending a low-income parent’s right to purchase diaper cream for a suffering child.
This was not the beginning of welfare reform, but it was certainly a low point. Another low point came shortly after when both chambers of the Legislature thought it would be wise to require EBT photo cards for recipients of cash and/or SNAP benefits. It seems that in response to media stories highlighting the misuse of EBT benefits, the Massachusetts Legislature chose to be the only state in the country to adopt this practice.
Many would ask, what’s wrong with EBT photo cards? They cut down on fraud, waste and abuse. The simple answer is – no, they do not. And here are a few reasons why:
- Retailers do not even look at the card – the federal government has made it clear that any retail establishment that checks the IDs of an EBT card holder must check the IDs of all those rendering electronic payment.
- All family members have the right to access the household’s EBT benefits or designate a non household member to utilize the card on the family’s behalf.
- Having a photo on an EBT card does not discourage a retailer who is engaging in criminal activity from being a criminal.
- There is no evidence that suggests the benefits of implementing an EBT photo card program outweigh the costs associated with it.
Despite the list above, the MA Legislature voted overwhelmingly to implement a program that former Governor Mitt Romney eliminated due to its high costs and inability to assist in rooting out fraud. In fact, out of the 200 legislators who make up both the House of Representatives and the Senate, only 2 voted against bringing back this failed policy, Senators Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston and Jamie Eldridge of Acton.
So, you might ask – why did they do it? And the answer is not an easy one, depending on who you ask. It seems that the Legislature had a knee jerk reaction to several media stories blasted on the airwaves after the release of two audit conducted on the Department of Transitional Assistance. Both the media and the reports suggested that fraud was rampant in the welfare system, when scrutiny of the reports and evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of households receiving assistance are doing so legitimately.
No one has suggested that welfare fraud does not exist, or that we should not invest in ensuring that precious public resources for social programs are maximized by families who are eligible to receive them and utilize them for the purpose for which they were intended.
In fact, the Legislature has increased penalties for both recipients and retailers who engage in illegal activity with public assistance benefits, but that is not what is being addressed here. The recent actions of the Legislature beg the question: what are we solving for? What goal are we trying to achieve? And how does an attempt at banning hand lotion or bringing back photos on EBT cards help us arrive there? Simply, they don’t. And yet, the saga continues.
Earlier this week a legislative conference committee released their final version of An Act to Foster Economic Independence, more infamously known as ‘welfare reform.’ While the bill would include some positive changes, such as allowing for increased education and training and loosening some asset limitations, there are still significant concerns:
- Gives current or future administration blank check to narrow the disability standard. 4,500 disabled parents and their children would lose all benefits after two years and sooner if they can’t meet work requirements
- Imposes job search requirements on applicants before they can qualify for childcare or transportation assistance. There is a real risk that children will be left in unsafe arrangements while parents attempt to comply with the requirements of job search.
- Requires applicants who previously received benefits to prove compliance with a plan developed while they received benefits, perhaps years earlier, regardless of whether the plan still makes sense or was reasonable and appropriate in the first place. A lifetime bar, with no way to cure past failures, is unconscionable and fails to provide an opportunity for success.
- Imposes work requirements on pregnant women in their last trimester, unless they have medical proof they can’t work. Pregnant women in the last trimester are not likely to get hired for jobs and not likely to be accepted into training programs.
Tomorrow, the Senate will likely vote on the recommendations of the conference committee, and all indications point to its passage. The welfare coalition continues to advocate for NO votes on the bill, and are continuing to educate Senators on the potential harm contained in the bill. At the very least we are hoping that Senators who are concerned about the well being of children in extremely low income households will seek increased legislative consultation oversight of the implementation of these policy changes at DTA.
“Unintended consequences” is a phrase that continues to arise in the conversations around welfare reform. If you recall, the DTA’s implementation of the EBT photo cards left many without access to their benefits last December, as their cards were deactivated before receiving a replacement card with their photo on it. Currently, families are reporting that their benefits are being erroneously terminated because of bad data matches that are occurring, indicating they received income that they never did.
So while our ideal outcome would be an anonymous NO vote on this bill in the Senate tomorrow, we realize that will not happen. Yet, it is imperative that the Legislature at least seek to ensure that DTA is able to implement these policy changes while minimizing the harmful impact on children. And ultimately, we have to ask ourselves: are these changes to policy really helping us to root out fraud, waste and abuse – or is it doing more harm to children in poor families whose parents are actually “playing by the rules” and working toward economic independence?
And finally, when does it end? Will we ever get to a point where there is absolutely no fraud in the welfare system? No, as with any other system. Should we be creating opportunities to enhance program integrity and ensure that access to these programs is limited to those who are actually in need and are eligible? Absolutely! How can we move policy makers to address root causes and true solutions? And, in the meantime, how many more children living in poverty will suffer as a result of unintended consequences of policy designed around false public perception of rampant fraud and abuse?
-Diane Sullivan, Policy Director