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Mass. House to vote on $20m welfare reform

The Massachusetts House of Representatives is scheduled to vote Wednesday on its version of a welfare reform bill meant to cut down on fraud and help benefit recipients find jobs and ultimately come off public assistance.

The $20 million bill, rewritten by House Ways and Means Committee chairman Brian Dempsey, includes provisions to require adult recipients who are not enrolled in a full-time secondary school or granted a work exemption to seek employment through a “pathways to self-sufficiency program,” to imprison repeat food stamp traffickers for up to 10 years, and to crack down on out-of-state residents collecting payments.

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The Senate passed similar legislation in June.

If the House version passes Wednesday, the chambers will have to reconcile their bills before sending a final version to Governor Deval Patrick for possible signing into law.

Dempsey, a Haverhill Democrat, could not be reached Tuesday, and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo’s office declined to comment.

House minority leader Bradley Jones, a North Reading Republican, hailed the bill as an effective compromise.

“At the end of the day, I’m sure there will be people from one wing who think it doesn’t go far enough and people from another wing who think it goes too far,” Jones said. “So maybe that means it’s actually a good bill.”

‘You have to remember that this is a program called Transitional [Aid] to Families with Dependent Children.’

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But some provisions of the House bill could adversely affect deserving families, said Rebekah Gewirtz, government relations director for the state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

“We really have deep concerns,” Gewirtz said. “You have to remember that this is a program called Transitional [Aid] to Families with Dependent Children.”

She said disability provisions in the bill could disqualify thousands of vulnerable families from receiving benefits, and a section requiring people to seek employment before applying for assistance fails to take into account “circumstances that could prevent them from holding a job at certain times in their lives.”

The bill in its current form requires adult applicants “who are not exempt from the work requirement to conduct an initial job search prior to receiving cash assistance unless the applicant has good cause for not participating as determined by the [state], which may include disability.”

Protections against fraud in the bill include suspending benefits of recipients who fail to notify the state of an address change; requiring citizens who receive assistance to provide their Social Security number within three months of being assigned a placeholder number; and requiring adult recipients to provide evidence of job searches.

The legislative push follows the resignation in January of the former head of the state Department of Transitional Assistance after a report from the state inspector general suggested the Commonwealth was squandering $25 million a year on improper benefits.

The auditor’s office released a report in May finding $18 million in suspicious welfare payments, including money sent to more than 1,160 recipients listed as dead, though transitional assistance officials at the time questioned the accuracy of the tally of deceased beneficiaries.

In September, the state agency that oversees the Transitional Assistance Department released a report detailing several “program integrity enhancements,” including Social Security number verification improvements, requiring residency verification forms to be signed under penalty of perjury, and increasing the amount of applicant income data available to department screeners.

Material from State House News Service was used in this report. Todd Wallack of the Globe staff contributed. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.
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