Patrick Questions Motives of Welfare System Critics

By Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, APRIL 26, 2012….Gov. Deval Patrick on Thursday said that his administration has done more than any other to root out fraud in the EBT card welfare system, but he believes there is an underlying theme driving the debate about whether the state should be providing welfare at all.

“I think that some of the debate, frankly, seems to be a veiled debate about what’s really at issue which is whether we should provide benefits to people to help them help themselves, and if that’s a debate folks want to have then they need to bring it with that candor because we have to be and we are in this Commonwealth about helping people help themselves,” Patrick said during his appearance on WTKK-FM’s “Ask the Governor” segment.

The House late Wednesday night adopted an amendment to its budget on a 122-33 vote attempting to crack down on abuses in the state’s $415 million welfare system that distributes benefits to recipients through electronic benefits transfer cards.

After a sharp debate stirring strong emotions among some members who criticized the proposal as an attack on poor people, the House voted to restrict welfare benefits from being spent in places such as nail salons, tattoo parlors, casinos, and strip clubs or on travel, cosmetics and theater tickets. The House also approved $100,000 to be spent on a consultant to study how Massachusetts could move to a cashless system.

The amendment’s proponents, such as Rep. Shaunna O’Connell (R-Tauton) and Rep. Russell Holmes (D-Boston), have said that reforms such as limiting access to cash are needed to protect taxpayer dollars and ensure that adequate resources are available to those who truly need it.

While federal SNAP benefits, more commonly known as food stamps, cannot be taken in cash, other cash assistance benefits on EBT cards can be withdrawn on ATM machines and spent wherever.

Patrick said he was not convinced a completely cashless system would work, noting that some proponents of providing cash say recipients need money to pay for transportation or to have their hair and nails done in preparation for a job interview. He did say, however, that he was open to limiting the amount of cash available.

“The question is where the right line is to draw,” Patrick said.

Patrick said he would wait to see what lands on his desk before committing to signing the legislation. The Senate will take up its budget in May and senators will have to decide whether and how to respond to the House EBT plan.

During an interview Thursday morning on WATD-FM, Senate President Therese Murray said she has “not heard a lot” from her constituents about EBT card abuse, but is awaiting recommendations from Inspector General Greg Sullivan’s audit of the use of EBT cards and looking to expand upon a law approved in 2011 banning the use of EBT cards to buy alcohol or tobacco products.

Murray, who helped write an early 1990s welfare-to-work law, said last week’s sweep by state and federal law enforcement of 53 individuals accused of committing welfare fraud by selling their food stamps for cash shows a need for tighter rules.

“Obviously it’s not enough,” she said. “The enforcement that just happened and the arrests that just happened certainly show that there needs to be more done.” She added, “We need do what California has been able to do and that is block the access of cash from certain places or for the use of these cards for many, many things that they were not intended for.”

Murray said the state moved from issuing public assistance checks to electronic benefit cards in part to provide a “safeguard” on the program. “There are people who abuse them and we’re seeing that so there’s got to be a way for us to block the use of those cards,” she said.

Patrick told radio hosts Jim Braude and Margery Egan that the anti-fraud unit in the Department of Transitional Assistance has recovered $11 million in fraudulent spending of welfare assistance by EBT card beneficiaries during his tenure, more than any of his predecessors, he said. He also said he did not believe the problem was as widespread as the amount of recent attention would suggest.

“It’s important we protect the integrity of the program, but I also want to say the program is important. It’s a way forward for the most vulnerable folks to help them with housing, with what they need to get a job, to educate their kids,” Patrick said.

The governor also said the idea of adding user photos to EBT cards “sounds like a great idea,” but earlier this month a commission reviewing the EBT card system expressed concern about the cost of processing photo IDs.

When a caller from Homes for Families suggested the governor appoint a welfare recipients to the commission that will study cashless benefits, Patrick said, “What a great idea because we do have a lot of people who haven’t walked in these shoes opining about it.”