A year ago, Governor Deval Patrick said he wouldn’t do anything “that makes vulnerable people beg for their benefits.”
In a society that increasingly demonizes the poor, that’s a challenging mission — even in Massachusetts, with its strong safety-net tradition. From a policy perspective, the findings released last week by state Auditor Suzanne Bump will make it even harder to treat the poor with dignity.
From July 2010 to December 2012, state auditors identified 1,164 cases where recipients continued to receive a total of $2.4 million in benefits from six to 27 months after they were reported to be dead. The state also paid $368,000 in benefits to 178 guardians who were claiming deceased persons as dependents; and $164,000 to 40 individuals who were claimed by more than one guardian. The audit also found that five regional offices could not account for the distribution of over 30,000 electronic benefits cards.
Instead of embracing an overall call for reform, the Department of Transitional Assistance is quibbling over the number of dead people receiving benefits and questioning other findings. Agency officials also said they have taken steps to correct the problems, via a 100-day action plan that was put in place in March.
But Patrick shouldn’t let a shoot-the-messenger mentality overcome the need to address genuine public outrage over systemic flaws that led to past waste, fraud, and corruption. The auditor’s findings undermine the faith of taxpayers who believe, as the governor does, in government’s role in providing resources to people who really need it. At the same time, they also stoke the biases of a second group of citizens who already judge poor people along a sliding scale of lazy to criminal.
Instead of doing battle with the auditor, Patrick should focus on keeping the first group of constituents on board and the second at bay.
Bump — a Democrat, like Patrick — stands by her numbers. She said auditors sat down with Department of Transitional Assistance staff members last October to review their findings. According to Bump, they acknowledged the deficiencies, which occurred under previous leadership. The current leadership is addressing the findings, but, as Bump points out, that doesn’t negate the past, or guarantee the future.
She also acknowledges that the problems identified in the audit represent a tiny fraction of a $1.7 billion program. Still, she said, “The purpose of an audit is to test the system that agencies have in place to prevent money from being wasted or misused.”
Noting that in her past life as a state lawmaker she championed programs for the less fortunate, Bump said: “Having programs with integrity is as important to the recipients as it is to the taxpayers. These programs have to work right. There’s not a lot of money available. If taxpayers don’t have confidence in them, they’re not going to support them.”
Patrick, who is thin-skinned about criticism in general, dismisses calls for welfare reform as “political grandstanding.”
Last July, he vetoed legislation, achieved with bipartisan support, that would have banned the use of electronic benefit cards for porn, body piercings, and manicures. He also enraged critics when he resisted efforts to release information regarding welfare benefits and other financial assistance received by the alleged Marathon bombers.
Patrick insists that his administration has done more than any other to root out welfare waste and fraud and that the public uproar is really a “veiled debate” about “whether we should provide benefits to people to help them help themselves.”
Patrick is right about the debate, which isn’t all that veiled. As others have observed, the war on poverty launched in the 1960s, has turned into more of a war on the poor and the benefits they receive from grudging taxpayers.
But he’s too prickly on the subject of welfare, when he needs to be eloquent on the importance of social compact. That’s what initially won him the governor’s office.
Patrick can be a compelling advocate for the poor. But first he has to restore overall taxpayer trust in a system that showed signs of weakness on his watch. That’s more important than his own pride, ego, and future beyond governor of Massachusetts.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.