One in seven Massachusetts residents receive some form of welfare benefits, and during the recession that critical safety net kept thousands from sinking into abject poverty. Annually, food stamp and cash payments to needy families added up to about $1.7 billion. That number should provide some context to a recent report that identified up to $18 million in possible waste over a 22-month span — it’s a minuscule percentage — but should also remind officials why they must not accept even a low level of misspending as inevitable. The public’s tolerance for abuse in welfare programs is even lower than in other areas of government. Food stamps and other welfare programs are simply too important for agencies to let waste go unnoticed and fraud go unpunished.
According to the report by State Auditor Suzanne Bump, questionable payments have flowed to recipients in several ways. More than 1,160 recipients were either dead or used a dead person’s Social Security number, receiving $2.4 million between July 2010 and April 2012. Another $4.6 million was spent out of state; while it’s not intrinsically suspicious if Massachusetts residents use stores in New Hampshire or Rhode Island, $21,000 was spent in Hawaii in one six-month span. Multiple transactions with the same electronic benefits card within a single hour — a pattern hinting at theft or improper use — accounted for $3.6 million. And $840,000 was withdrawn in transactions where debit card numbers were entered manually; such cases may mean the user had a card number, but not an actual card.
The Department of Transitional Assistance, which distributes aid, contests some of the specific figures, and says it has already instituted many changes under its new interim director, Stacey Monahan. It is also moving to embrace what might be the single most important recommendation in Bump’s report: The state has to make better use of data analytics to identify suspicious patterns among the millions of transactions on state-issued welfare benefit debit cards. Just as credit card companies can almost instantaneously flag unusual transactions and put a stop on accounts, state agencies should monitor card usage more carefully. Bump’s office found that the transitional-assistance department has access to such reports from its debit-card vendor, Xerox, but that they were not always being used.
Criminal prosecution is appropriate for anyone cheating a program designed to help poor people. Fully investigating these cases will also give officials a better idea of exactly how crooks beat the system. At the same time, lawmakers shouldn’t demonize aid recipients or impose excessive burdens. Not every kind of questionable transaction flagged by Bump’s review will turn out to be fraud, and officials must use discretion to distinguish willful theft from paperwork delays or honest misunderstandings.