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Confidence in Mass. welfare system depends on preventing abuse

The recent resignation of former welfare commissioner Daniel Curley was the first in a series of actions needed to restore credibility at the state Department of Transitional Assistance. The agency, charged with ensuring the basic needs for about 500,000 of the state’s poorest households, has failed at its most basic administrative tasks — establishing eligibility and keeping track of its clients.

Evidence of this failure came in waves. In mid-January, the state auditor received evidence of $1.3 million in fraudulently obtained benefits during a three-month period. The state inspector general’s report came next, citing potential eligibility errors — including undisclosed assets and job income — in a whopping 33 percent of the department’s portfolio. The sloppy oversight could be costing taxpayers $25 million annually, according to the report.

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For good measure, the federal government has informed the Patrick administration that it overpaid food stamp recipients by nearly $28 million during 2010 and 2011. The department, meanwhile, is still licking its wounds after reams of voter registration mailings to welfare recipients and applicants came back as undeliverable — an indication that the state may be continuing benefits to people who’ve left. Welfare officials admit to losing track of 3,000 holders of electronic benefit cards.

Public assistance should be flexibile enough that families can pay not just for food, but for transportation, school supplies, and other needs. Yet the system also needs safeguards to prevent abuses. The Patrick administration, which is pushing a $1.9 billion tax plan for education and transportation, shouldn’t underestimate how much irregularities in the welfare system undermine public support for government programs more generally.

Newly sworn-in Secretary John Polanowicz of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services has tapped Stacey Monahan, the office’s former chief of staff, to serve as interim director of the Department of Transitional Assistance. She already enjoys a good working relationship with the state auditor and inspector general, whose ongoing examinations will be key to righting the department. Monahan immediately sent the right message by insisting on biweekly reports on the misuse of electronic benefit cards for the purchase of alcohol, tobacco, and other disallowed items.

Sloppy oversight could be costing taxpayers $25 million annually.

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Meanwhile, Monahan is preparing a plan that addresses training, technology, and other methods to ensure that recipients are in compliance with all eligibility requirements. To implement it, she’ll need more than the four fraud investigators now working for the department.

What’s most unfortunate about the welfare controversy is how it undermines a program that stands between hunger and homelessness for thousands of children and elderly residents of the state. That should be plenty of motivation for Monahan to ferret out abuses.

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