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Mass. Senate approves plan to overhaul welfare

The Massachusetts Senate approved an overhaul of the state’s welfare system Thursday that seeks to move more people off public benefits and into jobs while reducing fraud and abuse.

The measure, unveiled earlier in the week by Democratic leaders, was passed on a 37-to-1 vote after senators debated dozens of proposed amendments.

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The proposal has been promoted by its supporters as one of the most comprehensive attempts to overhaul welfare in the country and the most sweeping in Massachusetts in nearly 20 years.

Under the legislation, able-bodied people seeking welfare benefits would first have to demonstrate that they have tried to get jobs on their own and then would be offered state assistance in their job search, including access to employment listings and skills training.

Senator Michael Barrett, Democrat of Lexington, said at the outset of the debate that the bill seeks to assure that public assistance is never the ‘‘first default choice’’ for someone.

‘‘We’re trying to figure out in the realities of this economy . . . how to help you help yourself,’’ Barrett said.

The lone vote against the measure was cast by Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, Democrat of Boston.

Among the proposals to counter fraud is a requirement that photo IDs be put on all electronic benefit transfer cards used by welfare recipients by August 2014.

Critics of the EBT cards, which work much like bank-
issued debit cards, say they frequently fall into the hands of unauthorized people.

All recipients would be required to obtain permanent Social Security numbers within three months of receiving benefits, and the bill would fund more investigators and caseworkers within the Department of Transitional Assistance, the state’s welfare agency.

Republicans praised the bill but offered several amendments they said would strengthen fraud protection. Among the amendments approved was one calling for tougher penalties for stores that sell prohibited items such as liquor or lottery tickets to EBT cardholders.

Senator Michael Knapik, Republican of Westfield, said one of the key reasons for the legislation was the ‘‘failure of stewardship over these vital programs.’’

A recent state audit found more than 1,000 cases of welfare benefits being paid to people who had died or people using Social Security numbers of people who had died.

While the administration of Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, disputed those figures, the audit and other recent investigations have increased the pressure to overhaul the system.

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