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Fighting welfare fraud: Do photo IDs work?

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The welfare bill passed by the state Senate this week aims to prevent the kind of abuses and irregularities that undercut public confidence in the safety net. In a report last month, state Auditor Suzanne Bump identified $18 million in suspicious welfare payments over 22 months, including benefits to people who were listed as dead and purchases charged to electronic benefit transfer cards that were stolen or illegally sold. The Senate measure calls for including photographs of recipients on benefits cards. The idea is entirely reasonable; photos on cards, especially when coupled with increased measures to prevent the use of phony Social Security numbers, should prevent some fraud. But before agreeing to pay a price tag estimated at $5 million in the first year, legislators should have a clearer sense of exactly how much photos will help, especially since the Romney administration rejected the idea in 2004 as not cost-effective.

Not all fraud involves holders of improper cards pulling one over on merchants. In a number of cases, unscrupulous storeowners have charged a fee to cardholders in exchange for illegal cash withdrawals; adding photos to cards likely wouldn’t address this problem. Moreover, other steps that welfare officials put in place in December are already discouraging abuses. Because repeated requests for new cards may indicate that beneficiaries are selling ostensibly lost ones, the state imposed fees for replacements — and now requires an in-person meeting with those who report four or more cards missing in 12 months. The number of requests for fourth replacement cards has dropped by 62 percent.

Steps that restore public faith in the embattled Department of Transitional Assistance are helpful. But significantly increasing the cost of the program without cutting abuses only makes matters worse.

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