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December 06, 2016
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Defrauding us all

There will always be those who cheat, and one of the problems with that is that it can cast a dark shadow over others who do not deserve the label. Such is the case with welfare recipients who try to get more than they are entitled to and the unfortunate ripple effect that extends to honest people who find themselves in need of the safety net that public assistance offers.

In April, Sullivan County hired a chief fraud investigator in its Division of Family Services and established a team of investigators from all law enforcement offices around the county. Their goal: to target public assistance fraud.

And they have been successful.

To date, more than 20 people have been arrested and charged with defrauding the county. These are good numbers for a program that is still new, but regardless of the numbers, the arrests send a clear warning that those who intentionally misuse the state welfare system—by withholding information or giving false or inaccurate information—that they will be caught and prosecuted. It further sends the message to others who might be drawn to Sullivan County from elsewhere that the county is not an easy mark for this kind of larceny.

We applaud the legislature and, in particular, the leadership of Cindy Kurpil Gieger for taking such bold and necessary steps to identify such fraudulent behavior. This is a kind of crime that undermines public trust in public assistance for those who truly need it. When people manipulate the system, deserving, less fortunate people pay a price. Taxpayers pay a price, too, and rightly resent those who abuse the system. We believe that arrest and prosecution of those who are manipulating the system is right and proper.

Yet something else troubles us.

In the newspapers, when we read the names and see the faces of people who are charged with welfare fraud, too many among us have a tendency to stereotype all welfare recipients by believing they, too, are taking advantage of us and that many people’s need for public assistance is a result of moral failings. In reality, in all but a tiny fraction of cases, people need assistance when they are in financial hardship for economic reasons having nothing to do with their values or morals.

(Parenthetically, we seem to have different standards and attitudes when it comes to corporate welfare. In fact, the federal government pays substantially more for corporate welfare than it does for social welfare—$100 billion in 2011 for corporate welfare versus $60 billion for social welfare in that same year. [See])

Furthermore, we seem to have different attitudes about public assistance than we do about other social welfare programs such as Social Security or Medicare. In fact, Social Security and Medicare work successfully to keep people out of poverty. So does public assistance. The truth is that when the economy is booming, employment soars, poverty falls and public assistance caseloads plunge.

Additionally, government welfare reform has largely worked. In the decade following passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which imposed time limits on cash assistance and sent large numbers of welfare recipients back to work, welfare caseloads dropped nationwide by 54%. In 1996, 4.7% of the U.S. population was on welfare. In 2012, that percentage had dropped to 1.7%. Reforms like this have helped make clear that welfare is not a way of life.

And it was only when the Great Recession hit that the trend was reversed, with 45 states seeing their caseloads grow again. In such hard economic times, social safety net programs should rightly grow as they work to offset the effects of high unemployment and keep millions of Americans out of poverty.

Programs that help reduce poverty are good for society at large.

We believe that blaming people on public assistance for the plight of their circumstances is not helpful. Instead, as a society, we need to support programs that best help people get out of poverty and jobs programs that help get people back to work.