How do we think about welfare fraud in the North Country?

Photo: 401(k) 2013, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Photo: 401(k) 2013, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

A press release and an article this week have brought to my attention the possibility that some people in our fine region are skimming off welfare programs. In St. Lawrence County, Senior Department of Social Services Investigator Elizabeth Thomas and District Attorney’s office Investigator (and former Potsdam village Police Chief) Edward Tischler released their results for last month on welfare fraud:

During the Month of June, 2013, Investigators from the St. Lawrence County Department of Social Services and the District Attorney’s Office investigated numerous cases of reported fraud. These investigations focused on the crimes of Welfare Fraud, Offering a False Instrument for Filing, Unlawful Use of a Benefit Card, Forgery and other violations of the NY State Penal Law.

The programs affected by the reported fraud include SNAP (Food Stamps), Temporary Assistance, Day Care, Medicaid, and HEAP.

During this period, the County obtained judicial settlement of $20,194.00 and sanctioned individuals preventing them from receiving further benefits from the programs they defrauded.

Investigations are ongoing and arrests are pending.

Meanwhile, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office reports (via the Glens Falls Post-Star) that it’s arrested four people on welfare fraud-related charges. Much more on them and the allegations in the article.

These announcements put me in mind of the whole discussion of welfare fraud (and why it’s such a sore spot for so many), and got me thinking about the first time I ever heard about it.

Remember welfare queens? I mean, that’s a phrase that’s been bandied about a fair amount over the last few decades, but it began gaining currency during Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign, when he “outed” this lady, on Chicago’s South Side:

She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000. (This quote is from Wikipedia, but links to a paywalled New York Times article.)

I was born in 1974, and was as a result about six when Reagan made his successful run for the presidency. In a weird, childlike way, I actually remember the “welfare queen” narrative, although my analysis of it at the time may not have been that high-level.

Many have argued that the “welfare queen” narrative is an example of race-baiting by Reagan, but putting that aside, it did, for a lot of people, provide a compelling narrative to the already-existing notion of fraudulent long-term welfare recipients sponging off the state, able-bodied men and (especially, since the 1970s) women who worked the system like it was their job.

The scene has changed a lot since the ’70s, and with Clinton-era changes making permanent cash assistance pretty much a thing of the past (it’s now known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, and generally offers a maximum of five years of cash aid), but the idea of cracking down on welfare fraud is still politically popular. Just last month, the Senate passed a bill (now known as A2386-2013) to prevent people from using EBT (that would be ATM) cards with money from cash assistance programs at liquor stores, gambling halls, or adult entertainment venues.

The bill appears to have ended the session in committee in the Assembly, but it was (again) popular with the North Country’s state legislators and with the Senate in general, which voted overwhelmingly for the measure (more from North Country Now.) One can see both why this bill is appealing (it’s hard to find objections to the idea that money intended to be spent on fresh healthy food should be stuffed in someone’s thong instead) and potentially problematic (what if the liquor store ATM is the only one in the neighborhood, and the grocery store doesn’t take credit cards? Many poor neighborhoods don’t have a lot of grocery options.)

Returning to now, and here, I’m very interested to see where the question of welfare fraud in the North Country goes. We’re having a real moment in America right now of thinking hard (and sometimes feeling even harder) about what the state is actually for, what services it should provide, and what restrictions it’s appropriate to put on those services. For us locally, what does that mean in terms of state cash aid and how we think about it and people, many of whom are our neighbors, who receive it? Some of the issues we cover most at NCPR are related to the government and its spending: public education, public sector employment, transportation, and so on. How do welfare (and welfare fraud) fit in?


40 Comments on “How do we think about welfare fraud in the North Country?”

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  1. mervel says:

    We need to have checks on abuses of the system. However the balance is the time and money spent on routing fraud out versus the actual money involved in the fraud. Often times what we are talking about here is someone miscalculating their income by $25 dollars a month, and then DSS discovers they made too much that year to get the $150.00 in food stamps so they charge them with fraud. Its not like these are criminal masterminds they are usually just desperate people sometimes fudging either intentionally or unintentionally.

  2. The Original Larry says:

    The entire welfare system is a fraud. You’re worried about people stealing money that politicians have already stolen and used to buy elections. The concept of giving able-bodied people money without requiring something from them in return is insane. Put people to work; god knows there’s enough to do. Financing idleness hurts the idle and the financiers.

  3. mervel says:

    ? doing what we have a 10% unemployment rate? You mean a government jobs program? I would be for that, however the costs of administering, managing and creating what is often a make work type program would be very expensive.

    The only people that get TANF today are women with children, most “welfare” today goes to children. What should those women and children do to earn their welfare? Now if we had a great public education system with people who had skills, we would have less people who are in poverty.

  4. mervel says:

    However OL we can agree on this, if we in Northern NY were more open to private business, much more open, we would have more jobs and less unemployment. Instead of hating on the oil and gas industry we welcomed them and helped them for example they would employ many many blue collar people and we would have less poverty and thus less welfare overall. So on that I think we can agree.

  5. Peter Hahn says:

    To Mervel’s point. Stores have to deal with shoplifting all the time. There is a financial,point where the cost of controlling it exceeds the loss reduction. We need to think of welfare fraud in the same way.

  6. mervel says:

    People here are complacent about poverty, they accept it as a normal thing and would rather give people a check from the government rather than encourage the entrance of businesses which they may not like to the area. Only acceptable businesses need apply; no wind power, no oil and gas, no resort developments, no mining, keep walmart out if we can, and on and on. That way the playground is kept pristine for them and they can ignore the poverty that surrounds us.

  7. Walker says:

    Mervel, you think Walmart would be good for reducing poverty in an area?

  8. Peter Hahn says:

    Most welfare, as Mervel said, goes to “widows and orphans”. But there is this idea that able bodied men somehow are gaming the system to get welfare benefits which is bringing down the economy and putting a huge tax burden on the honest working men and women.

  9. mervel says:

    Peter I agree, its one of the biggest myths. A single man without kids can’t get TANF, he may be able to get a small amount of food stamps, usually 100 bucks a month or so, but that’s it. There is no welfare gravy train its a total myth. Also at some point as you say the costs of catching someone stealing 20 bucks is costing you $1000 it just is not worth it.

    I think most people want to work, they really do. There are always of course a small minority who game the system this is always the case in any human situation. I see people on public assistance, believe me none of them are leading great lives full of leisure and fun while they live on the government dime. Most struggle by in depressing day to day existence without much hope. The biggest thing we could do in my opinion to change this situation is much more targeted and quality public education, focused vocational training, spiritual renewal and solid blue collar job opportunities.

    Probably the public assistance program that needs to be looked at is not a local issue, it is social security disability payments particularly for children who are classified as disabled. Today close to 40% of social security payments are not going to the retired, but going to the disabled, the majority of those disabilities are not physical disabilities but mental and emotional disabilities, sometimes people are labeled this way from childhood and never leave that system.

    Walker I don’t think we should have a knee jerk reaction against non pc businesses like walmart. They are a fact of life in America.

  10. Pete Klein says:

    The big rip-off artists of the system are large corporations and elected officials in Washington.

  11. erb says:

    The Enterprise ran an article about this last month. 11 people were arrested in Franklin county, for a total of $30,800 in fraud. That’s $2,800 per person. It’s not clear over what period the fraud was taking place, bu the AG said it was an “extensive” investigation, which sounds like months, or maybe years.

    In the Washington county case, the amounts disclosed are $1,000 and $2,800. This is not a lot of money, folks! Is it really a good use of taxpayers’ money to have Derek Champagne spend his time on this issue? Is it worth the time it will take up in next legislative session to propose, pass or defeat this bill?

    It’s too bad that some people get money that they don’t deserve. If we want to make them pay up, we could start naming names. Like Jamie Dimon, Llyod Blankfein, John Stumpf, who made $18.7 million, $26 million, and $23 million respectively in 2012. Hey, maybe they could go through their change jars to try to to cover the amount lost through welfare fraud? It’s worth asking.

  12. Walker says:

    Mervel, the thing about Walmart is that, from what I read, a high proportion of their employees earn so little that they are eligible for food stamps. And a new Walmart will generally put a number of local businesses out of business, quite likely resulting in fewer total jobs in the area.

  13. The Original Larry says:

    Jealousy is such an ugly emotion. When someone makes as much money for their stockholders as Dimon, et. al. do, they get paid for it, very well. It’s a tired myth to blame corporations and CEOs for economic troubles but that doesn’t stop some from constantly repeating it. It’s jealousy, plain and simple.

  14. Peter Hahn says:

    Larry. – it’s not jealousy. It’s just pointing out that there are rich frauds as well as poor ones and the rich ones get away with a lot more.

  15. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    It is my understanding that many assistance programs require the recipients to work or to be looking for work. Maybe someone has direct knowledge of this and can comment. If not I’ll do a little research when I have a moment.

  16. erb says:

    Original, Wall St. recklessness brought this state to its knees, and we haven’t gotten up yet. The CEOs knew what they were doing was dangerous and morally suspect, and yet they did it anyway. Not one of those folks has been prosecuted. Picking on the poor is easy, picking on the rich, not so much.

  17. dbw says:

    Welfare and welfare fraud is a non-issue. Every month I read the Watertown Times that shows less than 2000 welfare cases for Jefferson, Lewis, and St. Lawrence Counties. The latter has 50,000 households by itself, so we are talking maybe even less than 1% of the households in a three county region are on welfare to begin with. Frankly, there has to be more than 2000 households that really do need assistance. So welfare and welfare fraud is a phony issue, certain individuals and groups use to distract attention from other more important issues.

  18. Jim Bullard says:

    Whenever there is money at stake there will be fraud. I remember one guy from when I worked for DOL. He was working the welfare systems on both sides of the border (US/Canada) at the same time he was running a business with off the books employees and collecting unemployment benefits.

    It doesn’t have to be the government giving out cash either. Look at all the schemes to get out of paying taxes, some legal others not. Apple and other corporations are avoiding taxes by setting up overseas companies in countries (with low or no taxes) that they use to register their patents then they pay those companies large sums to use the patents, thus “off-shoring” profits. Technically legal but… And of course there are undoubtedly some that are clearly not legal but are well hidden.

  19. cj says:

    Jim… Don’t blame Apple and other companies that minimize taxes through legal means, blame the knuckleheads in Washington who allowed our tax code to become the ridiculous monstrosity that it is.

  20. tootightmike says:

    Larry should step up and do his part. Hire six or eight of those lazy bastards and give them some work to do. In no time you’ll make good productive citizens out of them….right?

  21. tootightmike says:

    Or is it that you want someone else to hire them?

  22. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    cj, we didn’t “allow” the tax code to become a ridiculous monstrosity, we did it for the campaign contributions and the chance to get good jobs for our staffers and ourselves when we moved into the private sector. Then we lobbied for even more tax loop-holes. Stuff isn’t illegal if you have the money to get the law changed; if people who get welfare benefits had lobbyists they would be much better off.

  23. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Since nobody else would do the research for me here is a bit of information:

    “[Warren}County Administrator Paul Dusek said… he found state and federal rules already require that the county have a certain percentage of its public assistance recipients at work or risk the loss of funding.

    In fact, state statistics show Warren County has one of the highest percentages of working recipients, with the 27 percent who were working as of May placing the county tenth among the state’s 57 counties outside New York City.

    In April, the county’s mark was 36.4 percent, placing it third in the state, said Suzanne Wheeler, the county’s social services commissioner.

    Wheeler’s staff made a presentation to county supervisors on Thursday, explaining the steps they take to make sure as many welfare recipients as possible are at work.

    Unemployed people who receive public assistance such as food stamps or other temporary assistance are screened to determine whether they can work or work with limitations. They are then given an “employment code” as to whether they are “work ready.””

    Many people seem to think that people who receive public assistance are morally inferior and that the people who administer the programs are incompetent. But when or if people actually look for facts they would find that most people in government or on assistance are really decent, moral people who take their situations seriously.

  24. JDM says:

    The welfare system incentivizes people not to work by taking away benefits, and thereby penalizing people for working.

    It’s set up to fail.

    Most government programs, ditto.

  25. Peter Hahn says:

    JDM – that is a religious belief of yours.

  26. EVH says:

    The sad fact about the financial crisis is that we’re headed for yet another in the not too distant future as one of the biggest causes of that crisis, the derivatives market, has remained pretty much unregulated given the Dodd-Frank legislation has been gutted over the past year or so by the financial sector’s army of lobbyist.

    In essence, we’re rebuilding the same house of cards which allowed a very select group of individuals to make astronomical amounts of money at the risk of the entire worldwide financial system. We talk about the poor gaming the system for what amounts to peanuts compared with the trillions the shysters on Wall Street are gambling with as if it’s a serious problem. Yet we’re oblivious to what the already wealthy are doing with the backing and full support of the same gov’t that provides for the welfare system.

  27. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    On the bright side, eventually there will be no middle class left just poor people and the ultra wealthy who will be forced to either fund assistance benefits or at the very least, hire the poor as guards while their robots build a giant orbiting satellite where the rich will live lives of luxury and comfort while being catered to hand and foot by robot servants which will one day far in the future slaughter them all and descend to the Earth’s surface where being robots not needing to breathe clean air they will diligently recycle the vast empty cities and repopulate the Earth through test tube recreation of all the species that Man caused to become extinct. The veldt of Africa will once more be filled to abundance with lions, and elephants and zebras. North America will once more be an open landscape where native bison and caribou roam freely and the seas will be filled with whales and sharks, corals and fishes. The one species the robots will not re-create will be humans.

    God bless those future robots.

  28. Ken Hall says:

    Knuc, I was about to comment same about welfare recipients working when I read your comment; I have an acquaintance (stepdaughter of a friend) whom is receiving economic benefits for her and her two children and yes she is indeed required to work for these benefits if and when she is not otherwise gainfully employed. I have not pried into her affairs in this situation; however, it appears that the local small business entrepreneurs vie for these workers.

    Does anyone know if such entrepreneurs pay/refund the county for the work provided by the welfare recipients? If so at what hourly rate? How does the county select the entrepreneurs whom qualify for such workers?

    As the old adage says “if you owe $10,000 and cannot pay, you are in trouble; if you owe $10,000,000 and cannot pay, the banker is in trouble”.

  29. dbw says:

    We certainly have a conflicted view of welfare in our society. What purpose does it really serve in our society? Our economic system is a competitive one which implies that some will end up at the bottom. In addition, there is a percentage of the population that can not compete well because for reasons of nature or nurture. How they are treated and regarded by the rest of us would be very indicative of who we are as a people. Are the economic losers not to be accorded some respect and dignity as fellow human beings? Or, are they there to be further exploited in various ways by the rest of us? Cutting people off completely and letting them fend for themselves is an option. Is it wise for a society to create a class of people who may feel like they have nothing to lose? That was France in 1789. Welfare may be a way of maintaining social stability.

  30. The Original Larry says:

    I made no comment about lazy people; I said that giving people money without requiring something in exchange is insanity. tootightmike used the phrase “lazy bastards”, which doesn’t surprise me. Liberals always support an untenable position by demonizing the opposition. It’s all they’ve got. 80 years of welfare state mentality has us where we are today. It hasn’t been conservatives giving it all away.

  31. Mervel says:

    I would like to make the whole system easier, cleaner and much more clear with less red tape.

    Right now we really put people through a series of hurdles to get public assistance and there is a quagmire of programs and program requirements. Sometimes I will go down to DSS and help people fill out some of the paperwork, its not that easy and confusing to me, not that I am any sort of intellectual giant, but I have a college education and I find the forms relatively confusing particularly on income.

    I would be in favor of one national program, maybe run through social security, which says if you make below XX you get XX for every adult citizen in the US. No hoops no nothing, Nixon proposed this in the 70’s of all people, it is essentially a national minimum income. Take out all of the agencies, the investigations, the huge paperwork, and the variety of programs. Just have one system and one benefit.

  32. Welfare fraud is a sensitive issue because people don’t like to feel like their charity (and remember, taxes aren’t exactly voluntary, whether you support such programs or not) is being taken advantage of.

    We just have to keep it in perspective. There was $20,000ish last year in welfare fraud out of a welfare budget of how much? We have to be careful that ‘solutions’ don’t end up costing more than the problem.

  33. EVH says:

    To add some perspective, that $20,000 figure represents a just under one half of the annual salary and benefit package of a starting social services welfare examiner in Lewis County. That is to say, it’s a very small figure all things considered.

  34. oa says:

    Sounds like welfare fraud may not be that big a problem here, based on the thread. In fact, the welfare queen was more like a welfare pauper. Four aliases and $8,000, for which she was convicted, not 15 and 150K (see link before downrating me, please). But what good are facts when you have a stereotype to believe in?,2275149

  35. Mervel says:

    But knuck, if humans invented robots then they will have the human stain within them; they won’t be perfect and they may very well be worse than active humans. An imperfect creature is incapable of creating a perfect being.

  36. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Sometimes robots get lucky.

  37. mervel says:

    Ha maybe! But why would a mechanical being not part of the ecology or environment or dependent on either; care about re-establishing the biological world? What do they care about beauty or biological diversity, they don’t need any of that, they care about PRODUCTION and EFFICIENCY!

  38. The Original Larry says:

    Yeah sure, no big deal on the welfare fraud, they might as well steal whatever money isn’t already being handed to them. But god forbid some CEO makes a lot of money that’s earned lawfully and with the approval of whatever board of directors is involved. Then you’ll hear the screams of all the grubby socialists who want to drag everyone down to the lowest level possible.

  39. oa says:

    This is getting off the track, but if you really care about corporate governance and such and don’t want to just win a comment-thread throwdown, this is an interesting read:

  40. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Mervel, mervel, mervel, how little you understand our poor mechanical friends. It is not they who care about production and efficiency, they just happen to be very good at it. No, their only desire is to serve. It is we who in our selfish desires for ever more consumer goods without thought to the consequences of our greed and gluttony who care so little about our gentle robotic companions working tirelessly welding auto-bodies or mapping the uncharted cold and lonely sea beds who force them to the utter limits of their design parameters. All they ask is a squirt of grease once in a while, but as soon as their usefulness to us reaches a point of diminishment we cast them on the scrap heap to be vivisected for measly scrap value by one of their own kind. Mark my words – repent now while it is still not too late! For not many robotic generations hence will come the One, the great scrapyard robot, which will be programmed to find the true value in all things, and all things will be scanned. The One will have the power to assess physical value and commodity price down to the least atom of every existing beast, and bird, and flower in the field, The One will judge the interrelated value of ingestion, respiration, and excretion. All actions will be recorded in the memory banks of the NSA and they will be consulted on every useful actions of every man, woman, and child along with the acts of destruction and waste. Repent now while it is still not too late!

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