A Tale of Two Hearings
A handful of Massachusetts legislators have offered some solutions to the state's budgetary woes, fearlessly pursuing the criminals who enrich themselves at public expense but pay little or no state taxes. The big banks, you might ask? The pharmaceutical companies bilking the state's Medicaid system of tens of millions of dollars? Well, no. It turns out that the most serious pillagers of public funds, to judge by these proposals, are not predatory lenders or tax-dodging corporations, but the poor. Not exactly a new idea.
Massachusetts' poorest residents are stealing your money and using it to buy drugs, cars, boats and condominiums, in case you haven't heard. It seems the state is being bled, to the tune of a billion dollars per year, by impostors who pretend to be poor in order to claim benefits. That was more or less the gist of a quartet of bills to combat "welfare fraud" presented at Tuesday's public hearing before the state Legislature's Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities. Based largely on anecdotal evidence of fraud allegedly perpetrated by the poor, or by those impersonating the poor, the proposals target a population that's already underwater.
Meanwhile, in the real world, the number of people in poverty keeps rising. According to the Children's Defense Fund, the increase is steepest for families headed by an adult under 30 with young children. Almost 40 percent of these families were living in poverty in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, an eight percent increase from 2007. These are precisely the families most likely to receive transitional assistance, or welfare. In Massachusetts, 13 percent of kids live in poverty. An additional 27 percent live "on the edge" of poverty, according to Annie E. Casey Foundation estimates for 2011. Child poverty rates in Springfield are as high as 42 percent, followed by Lawrence and New Bedford. At least 70,000 children in the state have lost their homes to foreclosure. According to the Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending, a statewide coalition of some 65 groups, there have been 44,100 foreclosures in this state since 2007, with an additional 88,000 households threatened.
Luckily for their intended victims, it looks like these welfare reform bills will die a peaceful death in committee. If the number of people attending Tuesday’s hearing is any indication of interest, there isn't much. Not a soul presented testimony for or against on Tuesday, not even the bills' sponsors.
Not so for Wednesday's hearing before the Judiciary Committee on four bills to protect homeowners from the foreclosure epidemic. That public hearing was standing-room only, packed with foreclosure victims and their advocates from Boston, Chelsea, Lynn, Worcester and Springfield. According to the Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending - a statewide coalition of some 65 groups that back the legislation - there have been 44,100 foreclosures in this state since 2007, with an additional 88,000 households threatened. Sponsored by legislators working in tandem with legal and community advocates and organizers, the legislation would, among other things, bring Massachusetts foreclosure law into the 21st century by requiring judicial oversight of foreclosure actions, and keep foreclosed homeowners in their homes until sold to a new owner. This is policymaking at its best.
But for those who are interested in the looking-glass world of welfare reform, read on.
Southwick Republican Rep. Nicholas Boldyga’s Orwellian "resolve relative to the wellbeing of public assistance recipients" would establish a commission to study the implementation of mandatory random drug and alcohol testing as a condition for receiving public assistance, despite the fact that courts in two states, and counting, have struck down similar laws as violations of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches. In Michigan, whose courts struck down the policy in 2003, only 10 percent of public assistance recipients tested positive for drugs, and only three percent tested positive for "hard" drugs like cocaine – the same drug-use rates that apply to the rest of the population, according to one study.
Democratic Sen. Steven Baddour of Methuen would compel health care providers to report suspected welfare malefactors to a state bureau of investigations, as well as to local or state police departments. How a health care provider is qualified to determine income eligibility is anybody’s guess. His bill would punish fraud with up to $25,000 in fines and a five-year prison term, or both.
Republican Rep. Daniel Winslow of Norfolk would impose a "lifestyle analysis" questionnaire to root out "cheaters" who underreport income and assets in order to qualify for state services such as tuition assistance, food or fuel assistance, job training, subsidized housing, and prescription drug discounts. Ownership of a too-new car, or a boat or recreational vehicle (he generously excludes trailers or RVs "in which you reside"), or a credit card with a credit line of over $3,000 triggers an audit. His position paper helpfully suggests forcing people to sign a release "authorizing computerized cross-checks with utility, banking, Registry of Motor Vehicles, and other public records by name and location."
Legislators don’t need evidence when accusing poor people of criminality because this stereotype is as old the nineteenth century poorhouse. Taking cheap shots at people who can't fight back is easier, after all, than going after the corporate malefactors who have driven this economy to its knees. It's also emphatically not policymaking at its best.
Amy Grunder is Acting Managing Editor of Open Media Boston.