A Sorry State of Affairs

I’m back after digging out from the first major snowstorm of 2013. Not happy, our tax refund was held up because we claimed education credits. God forbid we aspire to a college education for our progeny… The IRS wont accept our return until Feb 15. All because they did not do their jobs in Washington. Aggravating, to say the least – especially when we were not notified until AFTER we had filed that the return would not be accepted. And we can really use the money NOW. Not that anyone cares, but we have a leaky roof, and plumbing that needed fixing – in addition to the regular bills. So it would’ve been awesome for the feds to actually give us the money they owe us in a timely fashion. I mean really – if WE owed THEM then you bet your sweet bipp -y that they’d be attaching wages or whatever. but when THEY owe US …. nothin…..

But anyway – Massachusetts is in a bad way. Much waste and abuse. I have discussed this before. Folks who are friends on FaceBook or followers on Twitter have seen my posts. I’ve provided links to relevant information below.

It never ceases to amaze me how the bureaucracy fails to standardize itself. Gotta tell ya: one of the first things I learned when I transferred to the Administration Department where I work is standardizing a filing system. This involves creating an index, so that if I look in any file for a specific piece of information I will find it in the same place in each and every file. For example, in any one of the 300+ case records at our agency I can quickly find social security numbers because the cards are copied and filed first in the legal/administrative section of the record. Filing is standardized and documents are kept in order in the record so that 1. They are easy to find; and 2. Conversely, it is easy to discover when information is missing. We also conduct periodic QA “peer audits” to assure we have what we need in terms of required information.

Apparently all this is optional at the state level, at least in the TAFDC Department. (Lord only knows what the federal requirements are). I have to work frequently with the state -with two different  Area Offices in regard to contracting and service provision. I’m flabbergasted at the differences in what is required for responses to needed information on THEIR standardized forms. One A/O requires the forms to be filled out with “X”. The other A/O – same contract type, same type of service provision, same location; requires the same form to be filled out with “Y”.Not only that, but  how each office goes about doing things can be quite different. What’s good for one AO gets returned to us by another.

I have self-diagnosed OCD. Discrepancies like this drive me flippin NUTS. For example: The paperwork for the same activity code (same type of service) should be required to be completed in a standardized manner. Same answers for the same questions (different numbers/budgets obviously – but the methodology should be the same). Not so. Doesn’t make any sense at all, but certainly goes a long way towards illuminating some reasons why the state financial situation is in such disarray. No set standards.

Which brings me to a sorry conclusion. Much of what is wrong with this country right now is our inability to hold any elected official, any office, any department, any group, or any person to a set standard. There’s always an excuse. Out of the 381 welfare cases reviewed by the MA OIG just under 2% of them were found to be out of compliance/suspect/receiving benefits fraudulently/abusing the system via loopholes. Lack of documentation of school attendance, immunization records and some cases even receiving benefits without a social security number.  Cultural practices of naming children (last names/hyphenation and using the mothers last name) creating confusion because again no standardized requirements on birth certificates, social security card applications etc.  Switch the two last names around and bingo – collecting for two kids instead of one.  Anyway – the whole mess translates to more than $24 MILLION dollars per year wasted on people who were not actually eligible for benefits, or utilized them improperly. Heck, we are sending money to people we can’t even verify a current address for…. (see related article with video below from a local Boston station) Some might say 1.8% is within acceptable statistical limits. I say NO. 24 million dollars wasted per year is by no means acceptable by any standard.

Fortunately, some people in our state government agreed, and the head of the Welfare Department was asked to give his resignation. That doesn’t fix the problem though. Did you know there are currently only 3 Welfare Fraud Investigators in MA? WAY too few if you ask me…. So, MA will “harrumph” around for awhile, make a few ineffective and minor changes, appoint several more high level bureaucrats at six figure salaries to oversee these changes- and go back to wasteful business as usual. Too many bosses and far too few workers. Same old song and dance. I just don’t know what it will take to effect true positive and lasting change in the hulking morass of inefficiency and waste that constitutes Government.  We are constantly expected to do more with less, make do with less. I submit that we would not have to do that on such a constant basis if things were run more effectively and efficiently by those in charge. “But that’s just me….” (Thanks Barney! 😉 )

Old State House, Boston, MA, USA

Old State House, Boston, MA, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Welfare Chief steps down

Welfare Statistics

Massachusetts OIG TAFDC Report

The OIG report takes awhile to load so be patient, thanks!

Please Explain: What is a Cheerio doing in my Sugar Pops?

This quote is a funny family story about a family friend having breakfast with us while we were on vacation and finding a different brand of cereal floating in the milk amongst his preferred brand. He asked my mother to explain why, much to the amusement of all of us. OK – maybe you had to be there to get the full comedic effect; but trust me – it was hilarious at the time.

Let me now make the connections to today’s post. We had a snow day today here in the northeast, and my fingers and brain have been itching to get back to my writing. I decided to catch up with some of my blogger friends and came across this gem : Les Miserables and Social Injustice which I highly recommend you read. BTG and I don’t always see eye to eye but we provide and promote a climate that encourages thought, especially thought outside the usual boxes. Love that about him, and many of my other friends in the blogger-verse. As usual, his post got me thinking.

Just yesterday I was at lunch and talking with a co-worker/friend about current events, social issues etc. He comes from a very liberal background, but also has a great deal of common sense which we agreed is in short supply these days. He told me a story about leaving a previous social service job, and why. He used to work for an agency that provided advocacy, outreach, and support to families in crisis. Families would contact the agency with a variety of serious issues ranging from eviction, property theft or damage, home heating issues, social service legal issues like CHINS petitions, DCF interventions etc etc. One family contacted the agency because they had no heat and no money to pay for home heating oil. The agency arranged with a supplier to donate 100 gallons of heating oil to the family. Later on in the heating season, the family, perhaps trying to economise – had to relocate because their pipes froze and the residence was uninhabitable. The agency set them up with a hotel and got pro bono volunteers to clean up the flood and mess, and repair the dwelling. At the staff meeting, my friend brought up his concerns about arranging for the children to get back and forth to their school (they had to relocate to a hotel some distance from their neighborhood), and about reestablishing their routines as quickly as possible. To my friend, this meant arranging with a taxi service to get the family to and from school etc. It also meant perhaps trying to arrange for the family to meet with a financial planner/social worker who could help them create a budget to meet their needs. He was shot down, because what the rest of the team wanted to discuss was getting the mother a washing machine. (?!?) The agency had spent a lot of money and man hours helping the family and other families in similar situations. Another family had their property stolen (TV, air conditioner and the like) My friend brought up the idea of providing all the families with renters insurance. Its relatively cheap – like maybe 150 a year, and would certainly cost less than having to continually pay for replacements. Property theft is a huge issue for folks living in poverty. That idea too was shot down.

I daresay he felt like that cheerio swimming in the bowl with a bunch of sugar pops. The lone grain that’s completely good for you; and yet completely outnumbered by sugary sweet, completely non-nutritious “fluff” that tastes better – but has little health benefit when consumed. Now I’m sure that the folks working at that agency were well-meaning with big hearts. However, it was clear to my friend – and subsequently to me via his tale, that they were not able to, or actually could not, identify the pressing issues that would empower these families to regain control of their lives – rather than merely enabling them. In other words – no common sense. The sugar pops won the day, my cheerio friend quickly realized he was swimming in the wrong cereal bowl, and left his position forthwith. (See, I did relate my material to the title after all!)

One of my biggest peeves is this lack of common sense when it comes to allocating our time, talents, and treasure in terms of social activism, grassroots volunteerism, and implementation of social programs . Believe me when I say that I totally get the gray miserable-ness of poverty life. I understand how people want some happiness and how in the process of reaching for that, unplanned pregnancies may occur. Which is why I am totally for making viable birth control available cheaply to all. We’re human, and better penny wise than pound foolish. It costs less to provide a young lady a pill, or a young man a condom, than it does to support a single parent family on taxpayer dollars.

Now, I’m not poor. Both my husband and I are employed (Thank God!) – but we are living paycheck to paycheck just like millions of other middle class Americans and I know first hand how incredibly difficult it is to find any joy in life when all you are able to do is try and figure out how to get all your bills paid and make your earnings stretch as far as possible. Its horribly depressing to struggle with financial issues. To have to make the choice to pay bills rather than buy your kids Christmas presents. But guess what? That’s what we did. As responsible adults we have an obligation to provide the essentials for our families. If there’s no money left over after that, then that’s just too bad. There, I said it. We are only guaranteed the right to PURSUE happiness, we are not guaranteed happiness itself. So, I put my big girl panties on and I’m dealing with it.

Anyway, I believe – in my practical mind – that social assistance is supposed to help provide the essentials to struggling individuals and families. The essentials is the key concept here. The cheerios, if you will – NOT the sugar pops. And,we must keep in mind at all times that if we don’t hold people accountable then it becomes our responsibility as well when the system gets abused and our generosity gets taken advantage of. The current state of the welfare system has little direct oversight. We’ve managed to automate much of the processes and procedures. For example, when I was briefly on unemployment in the mid-eighties I had to actually report to a person in the unemployment office and provide them documentation of my job search efforts in order to receive my benefit check. I had to actually go to this office once a week. No phone calls, no computers. Face to face with the caseworker. These days its a matter of logging in on a computer and typing in whatever information you feel like. On the surface, this makes sense and would appear to save money. However, it’s hard to lie to someone’s face. Much easier to be less than truthful on an impersonal website. Now I’m not saying everyone is lying – I’m only saying that the system makes it easier to do so – and there are individuals who will lie to get what they want (human nature being what it is and all).

EBT cards are another example of a well meaning procedure/process/benefit that is incredibly easy to abuse. I’ve seen it firsthand and written about it previously so I won’t bore you with a recap but I can tell you it absolutely FROSTS me to see my hard earned tax dollars wasted in this fashion. I’m sorry you don’t have enough of your own money to get that lap-dance buddy, but you CAN’T (shouldn’t) spend your EBT benefits in the strip clubs, or getting a tat, or a manicure, or buying booze, or purchasing non-nutritious food. “Life is not fair”, I tell my girls all the time, so “Get used to it!” Here’s my cheerio (common sense) fix: 1.You should not be able to use your EBT card to get cash. 2. If they can set up EBT cards to reject alcohol and tobacco purchases it is certainly worth the effort to set them up to reject junk food and soda. These are not essentials, they are luxuries. We are not doing anyone any favors by enabling them to purchase non-essentials. And I really don’t want to have to pay more via your medicaid health insurance for your kid to get their cavities filled because you won’t set limits and give them nutritious food instead of those push pops you got for the “buy one get two” special at the Stop and Shop….. Grrrrrr!

No positive or empowering lessons learned – not in any way, shape, or form. We are not assisting anyone in differentiating between “want” and “need”. This is a crucial life lesson that absolutely has to be learned in order for anyone to be successful in life. Looking the other way and allowing the luxuries just because we feel sorry for folks is not actually empowering them at all. My co-worker friend had another great example about this: He was doing a home visit and saw that the family had a rather large HD LED or plasma TV on their wall. He asked about it, and was told that it was rented – paid for with the welfare benefits the family was getting. Here again is a great example of waste – and lack of prioritization. This family had all sorts of legal financial and other problems and yet felt the need to spend taxpayer dollars on the luxury of an HD television. (that was actually costing the taxpayers more than if they had paid for it outright because they were renting it) Sugar Pops. Dumb Sugar Pops.

People need to understand that a welfare check is not actually their money. They need to be accountable for how it is spent. It is a misnomer to refer to this type of benefit as an entitlement. It is not. They didn’t pay into the system, or work for it. They are not “entitled” to it. Veterans are entitled to benefits because of their service to our country. Retirees are entitled to their social security checks because they have paid into the system throughout their working lives. Laid off workers are entitled to unemployment benefits because they have worked. Our society has seen fit to provide charity to those in need. “Assistance Benefits” would be a much better phrase to accurately describe what is being provided. Now if you want to reform the welfare system and require “work for wages” then by all means, feel free to refer to it as an entitlement in that case. We need people working in the system to prioritize using a common sense approach, with a mission statement of “empowerment, not enablement” – and the mindset that goes with that.

But what do I know, I’m a cheerio swimming in a bowl full of sugar pops….

cheeriossugar pops

A Hand Up – Not Out: Resurrecting the Welfare System

I promised Barney I’d write more about my ideas for welfare reform. So here goes:  with apologies to Page and Plant: “…we all call the tune. Now the piper will lead us to reason”…. Or so I hope.

Let me start by sharing my own experience with the blue welfare state of MA. When I was pregnant with my oldest daughter I developed pre-eclampsia and was put on strict bed rest for the last month of my pregnancy. I had approximately 15 hours per week of accrued paid time off – which while planned for, seriously put a dent in the finances. We were scraping by – barely. I decided to apply for food stamps in hopes that this would help stretch the budget at least for the food. This was the ONLY assistance I applied for. After filling out the application over the phone with social services I was informed that we made four dollars a week too much to qualify for food stamps. I explained my situation again – reiterating and emphasizing my gravid and ill state. No dice, no exceptions.

However, the woman then informed me that I would be eligible for WIC assistance, but only after I had the baby. But, and here’s the kicker – we would immediately be available for assistance if our landlord evicted us for non payment of the rent. I told her we were in no danger of eviction and were current with our bills. She then told me if we wanted to be eligible we could just get the landlord to write an eviction notice. Appalled, I declined – and terminated the conversation. 1. We needed groceries, not a place to stay 2. I was not going to lie – or ask anyone else to prevaricate – just so I could get something , whether I needed it or not. This episode told me several things – all of which left a very bad taste in my mouth. The system fosters abuse and encourages deceit. We were fortunate enough to have family members that helped out with groceries and housework, and I couldn’t tell you where we might have ended up had it not been for them. Lots of folks are not as lucky as we were.

And I have to make another point here –  Yes, there are those who fit that stereotype in the system.  Yes, I do advocate social responsibility in regard to limiting the number of children you have when you are not in a position to support them adequately. However, there are many more who are not stereotypical – and who are using these benefits as intended. They are being painted with the same tarbrush as the “slackers” and its not fair. So I would ask that people do their research before they label someone.  Broad sweeping derogatory statements  are in no ones best interest.  Just because you see someone at the welfare office with a Coach purse does not mean that they are committing welfare fraud.  1. it might be a knockoff  2. it might have been a gift.  3. they might have gotten it at a tag sale or at an outlet at a substantially reduced price (like I did, and no  – I’m not getting assistance ).  I think I also mentioned in another post about welfare recipients and cell phones. Weirdly, it actually costs less for the state to provide cells with a limited number of available minutes to folks than it does for the state to pay in terms of missed appointments and rescheduling.  Apparently many folks on assistance do not have landlines. And, its cheaper to provide family counseling,  health education, &  hand out birth control  etc. than it is to cover child rearing expenses. The welfare structure IS NOT INFINITELY SUSTAINABLE.

That said- if a person is figuratively standing with their hand out asking for help, a certain level of accountability comes with that when help is given.  So, no. One does not get to spend their EBT (food stamp) money on frivolities and luxury items such as sweets, cigarettes or booze. Theres a cute little work around  we’ve personally seen a few times in action here in MA if you are inclined to use your ebt card to purchase liquor/cigarettes etc.  The regs clearly state you cannot use the card to buy booze or tobacco.  OK – wait for it –  there are ATM’s  in most packies or just around the corner.  EBT cards can be used to get cash at them…..  I’m sure you see where this is going….Another  good example of this is back in 2005 after Katrina.  2500 people were relocated up to MA to stay at Otis AFB – Camp Edwards –  they were given $2000 each by the state to help get them set up with basic stuff.  Some of these people decided to spend that money at local strip clubs and bars instead. That’s pretty luxurious “stress relief” on someone else’s dime, if you ask me… and we wonder why the system is in trouble. No, it certainly wasn’t every one of those 2500 people that did this – maybe 50 or so of them – or about 2% – if I had to make an educated guess from what I remember reading back then ( its 7 year old news and hard to research online as many of the links are now unavailable)  Statistically negligible – probably. But, that was still more or less $10,000.00 of taxpayer money into a g-string and down the toilet..
Massachusetts forgot, in our haste to be helpful and compassionate,  that once the money left our hands we had no control over how it was spent.

You’ve asked the state (us) to help you because  you need it to meet your basic needs.  Basic needs include healthy, nutritional food – not twinkies and a bottle of Jack.  And CERTAINLY basic needs do not include lap dances.  Anyway, the point I am finally emphasizing is that when it’s your own money do as you please with it. Rightly or wrongly. Yeah go ahead and get the tattoo. Just know you are going to have to go without something else to pay for it – or you’re going to get behind in your bills. Or maybe you simply have the disposable income. Regardless,  you have to account for that to no one but yourself.  But when you are using someone else’s money – they have a right to expect the money is being used as intended; and for the person to account for that money. In my feeble mind, that includes everyone who uses assistance – even the 2% others might be willing to write off.  If all are not held accountable then really no one is accountable. Think of the system as a creditor who is not expecting to be paid back – but is expecting that the funds be accounted for.  Like it or not, the taxpayers DO get to question how your aid is utilized, and should. They don’t get to judge though, at least until all the facts are in – every case is different. The state needs to do a better job of tracking and holding people accountable. It may cost more to do so when starting, but over the long run will save money.

Here’s whats right with the current state of affairs:
We cap the stipend for dependent children (its different state by state) You can only claim a specified number of dependents and receive money for them. Once you hit the number limit, the money caps. This helps address and negate that “poppin out kids and on welfare” stereotype – which unfairly is still a prevalent way of thinking. .There are a wide variety of low cost/no cost educational and vocational training opportunities available to those getting a helping hand. Voucher-ed child care is 100% paid for at a certain income level or below, and reduced fees are available for the newly employed. State sponsored health benefits (medicaid) are available for a specific amount of time after the person becomes employed – which allows their employee health coverage to kick in and no gaps in service. So far so good. (relatively speaking – medical insurance issues/woes are going to be a whole other post)  Please also note that a very sizable chunk of the money available in the assistance coffers goes to seniors, and the disabled via medicaid. And, transitional assistance is also available to the newly immigrated. TANF has been working to decrease welfare dependence since its implementation in 1996. The requirement to work, is working, but its not enough.

4.1% of Americans are getting welfare assistance right now  http://www.statisticbrain.com/welfare-statistics/  not including unemployment benefits. Note this number also does not include the newly immigrated.  Is supporting welfare causing a burden on working and middle class Americans?  No, it’s not causing the burden – but  I argue it IS exacerbating it.  On the other end of the spectrum we have a rising percentage of wealth gravitating to, and staying with, the top 1% of the population. Which also exacerbates the burden on the Average Joe.  We now have corporate welfare issues with companies rather than just people accepting assistance. Then these same companies provide their executives with multi-million dollar bonuses afterwards. (the same pool of “businessmen” whose poor stewardship led to having to accept the assistance in the first place? One wonders…) If the company could become that flush with cash that quickly, then why was it not reinvested in the company itself to improve the work environment, increase salaries of the workers, hire additional workers, and improve the company in general ??? (like the GOP would like us to believe will happen – but time after time has NOT happened)  OOPS  I’m a bit off topic….. 😉  If the corporation is figuratively standing there with its hand out, then it is certainly accountable to us for how it operates.

Here’s my proposal for a resurrection of the welfare system. (at least, the non-health related part of it).  We need to get more people working. I believe things are valued and taken care of more when one has to work for them.  I believe that people feel better about themselves when they are working and contributing.  FDR understood that.  During the Great Depression ( and if we’re not careful we’re heading straight for an even worse one) he created the CCC, found meaningful work for people, and gave them a wage for their time. Why is it that the state can require cities accept a certain number of homeless individuals in order to receive state aid?  What we should be doing is saying to each city and town:   Here’s earmarked aid for welfare.  Use it to provide and pay for jobs within your communities.  To welfare recipients and the unemployed, go to the city hall and sign up for work – then go do that work in order to get your assistance check.  MA is third in hourly wage equivalent welfare payments ($14.66 an hour) – only Alaska and Hawaii are higher.  source:  http://www.statisticbrain.com/welfare-statistics/   Not too shabby a wage, if you ask me. And, pass a drug test.

To churches sponsoring refugee immigrants: take a greater role in supporting your newly arrived members.  If these people do not have a place to stay when they get here, provide them one while they wait their turn for section 8 housing. (no bumping someone else down the list because you are a religious refugee)  And the state absolutely should not be providing annual  round trip tickets back to the country of origin so they can “maintain their cultural identity.”They left for whatever reason, and if they want to go back and visit they should save up like everyone else. My source for this is ancedotal – based on what I was told by my Ukrainian neighbor when she was discussing the benefits she was receiving from MA.   She (a lovely lady and great neighbor by the way) was astounded and pleased that MA would be so generous.   That generosity translated to  $1,800.00 per person for a family of 4 to go back to the Ukraine once a year.  You do the math.  Ouch!

To corporations asking for a bailout:  Sign a guarantee that profits coming in during a specified time after the aid is repaid are channelled in to improving the company infrastructure, hiring new workers,  providing additional training to current workers, and increasing wages for all employees.  Bonuses should not be even considered for executive level employees for at least 3 to 5 years after the government assistance has been paid back.  Because, whether an individual or corporate level bailout, it does come down to appearances (fairly or unfairly) , and us taxpayers are fed up.

So yeah, no easy answers, no glib solutions.  I think we are proverbially circling the drain right now –  so we need to take a careful, close look at how we are spending our money, and use both compassion and common sense to allocate our dwindling resources appropriately. By holding people and businesses accountable, we are helping to assure our dollars are spent as we intend them to be.