Welfare applicants would have to prove they have sought employment before receiving cash benefits under a broad overhaul unveiled Monday by state Senate leaders, who said the public assistance program is in need of major improvements.
The bill, which follows widespread reports of fraud and abuse, attempts to curtail identity falsification, and would force state agencies to share data that could prevent people from taking advantage of the system.
The measure would prod welfare seekers to try to find jobs through a state-run program, rather than applying for public assistance as a first option.
Currently, welfare recipients have to prove only that they looked for work within 60 days of getting cash assistance.
“The system has been stagnant for a long time,” Senate President Therese Murray said during an announcement on the measure at the State House. “And we want to shake up the system, and give people some hope, too.”
The Senate will take up the bill Thursday, Murray said, breakneck speed for Beacon Hill legislation.
Under the bill, adult welfare recipients would be required to use electronic benefit transfer cards with their photograph on them, and would face new perjury penalties for fraudulent declations of identity. Fraud on work participation forms would also trigger perjury penalties.
Senator Stephen Brewer, the Ways and Means Committee chairman, said the bill’s price tag was “in the vicinity of $20 million.”
Senators framed the legislation as a means of both preventing people from viewing welfare as an alternative to working and helping those enrolled to find work that would allow them to leave the program.
Momentum built behind welfare restructuring after an audit found that the state was furnishing benefits to more than 1,160 people who had died or were using a dead person’s Social Security number.
Some of the dead whose Social Security numbers were used to receive public benefits had been deceased for decades, Auditor Suzanne Bump told a House oversight committee Monday, State House News Service reported.
“We could see when we’re looking at the data, this is a Social Security number of someone who had died decades ago,” Bump said, noting that in addition to recipients who died, some of them were “questionable or fake, completely.”
Lawmakers have long eyed the program as ripe for changes, aiming to balance the elimination of waste with encouragement for recipients to obtain work that would allow them to exit the program successfully.
Under the bill, the Department of Transitional Assistance and the Commonwealth Corporation would revive an effort to link enrollees with full-time employment. For their first year in a job, participants in the program would be provided with child care, and employers would receive a subsidy toward the cost of providing health insurance.
Currently, pregnant welfare enrollees are exempt from a work requirement during the last four months of their pregnancies. The bill would scale the exemption back to the final month of pregnancy.
Under current law, the value of a welfare recipient’s vehicle is calculated in his or her asset assessment. The Senate bill would exempt one vehicle per household from the asset calculation.
For Murray, whose presidency is prescribed by Senate rules to end in early 2015, the legislation could serve as a career bookend. The 1995 welfare reform law was the first major piece of legislation that Murray played a significant role in writing in the Senate. Murray said Monday that measure cut the number of recipients by half.
Murray also told State House News Service that many people have urged her to run for governor next year, and she did not rule out that option. Her advisers have called such a campaign highly unlikely and said Murray is more likely to leave elected office.
The House is expected on Tuesday to approve a supplemental budget that also contains changes to the welfare system. Both the House and Senate leadership versions include crackdowns on those taking advantage of the system and requirements for valid Social Security numbers and photo identification.
House staff members were reviewing the bill Monday. While Speaker Robert DeLeo has pushed to include the welfare changes in the budget process, Murray has long maintained that she wants separate legislation.
DeLeo told reporters he still wants to follow through on welfare changes in the House budget, adding that he would be willing to take up components of the Senate leadership bill. “I think we need to take more immediate action to address some of the ills’’ of the Department of Transitional Assistance, DeLeo said, “and I think that’s the best way to do it.”
Governor Deval Patrick, who has raised questions about the welfare audit, offered preliminary praise for the Senate leadership bill. “It emphasizes welfare is or ought to be a way forward, not a way of life,” he said. “It gives to the [Department of Transitional Assistance] some additional tools and resources to deal with some of the concerns that we all have on our program integrity.
Senate minority leader Bruce Tarr called the proposal “a comprehensive approach that seeks to transition recipients away from dependence on welfare programs and toward sustainable economic independence.”
Still, Tarr said, Republicans would work to amend the bill.