Welfare fraud: The monster under the bed since welfare has existed! Who can forget Reagan conjuring up the image of a “Welfare Queen,” an enduring stereotype that’s stuck with us despite ample evidence to the contrary? Across the United States, people of all political parties widely believe that fraud is a huge problem in the government benefits system, and many support measures to crack down on fraud and improve the efficiency of government spending.
Overall government benefits are on the decline thanks to the flailing economy, right at the exact time that more people are needing them, and the war against the poor in the United States is escalating. People who want to claim welfare benefits are forced through an increasing series of hoops, including costly proposals for drug testing, before they’re allowed to get their funds; which, by the way, usually amount to a pretty paltry sum.
Whether you’re opposed to welfare and think less money overall should be spent on it, or you support it but want to make sure money lands in the right hands, fraud investigation and prevention seem like an obvious way to cut expenses.
So it’s no surprise that several states have proposed or already passed laws to restrict uses of welfare funds. Benefits to people on government assistance include Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards for things like groceries, along with cash payments to help them buy incidentals. Individual states want to limit the locations where you can use EBT cards to make cash withdrawals and purchases, on the grounds that those locations would constitution frivolous uses.
That includes places like strip clubs, tattoo studios, casinos and bail bond agencies. Some products, like alcohol and tobacco, cannot be purchased with an EBT. These restrictions are intended to direct how people use their welfare benefits, but there’s a lot of moral panic bound up in them.
Since I’m the resident pinko commie queer here, it should come as no surprise to learn that I personally don’t think the use of welfare benefits should be restricted. People who qualify for welfare also have to work for it, and that money is theirs to do with as they wish. It’s not my job or my responsibility to see what someone else does with, says, $200 in monthly welfare benefits.
Some people live very frugally and carefully balance their lifestyles to have money left over for fun things; maybe they want to go to the movies with their kids on Friday nights or work on an ongoing tattoo project because it means a lot to them and makes them feel better about the world. Other people don’t pay their bills or balance their budgets because they’d rather spend their benefits on other things. Whatever. Honestly, that’s their choice.
The United States is a country where we are all very eager to tell people how to spend their money and live their lives. This kind of moral concern trolling and busybody attitude is present everywhere, including in the high levels of government, and it’s reinforced by these kinds of laws. There is a model of the “deserving poor” in this country that is very much underscored by legislation and attitudes about how poor people should and shouldn’t be spending their money; a form of misery policing that requires poor folks to flagellate themselves and suffer at all times or risk having their benefits taken away.
But in the larger picture, even if you personally believe that there are some things people shouldn’t be allowed to buy with welfare funds, these kinds of restrictions set some dangerous precedents. For one thing, they establish a basis for policing what people buy that can become tighter and tighter over time. For another, they actually make it difficult for people to make legitimate purchases and cash withdrawals.
Some of the locations where use of EBT cards would be banned actually carry things like food and household items. Someone in a low-income neighborhood with limited access to a grocery store might go to a corner liquor store for basic supplies, for example. The store could be on the banned list, but the customer might genuinely need something like toilet paper or tomato soup or some fruit from the basket on the counter. Restricting the way people use their benefits can drive them to illegal means to support themselves and their families.
And let’s talk about fraud for a moment, since it’s ostensibly the reason behind these restrictions and multimillion-dollar fraud investigations. All of the states spend a substantial sum investigating and following up on claims of welfare fraud, yet actual fraud rates are extremely low. Testifying before the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the House Committee on Ways and Means in 2002, Cameron Findlay pointed out that unemployment insurance fraud occurred at a rate of less than 2 percent. That rate has held fairly steady ever since. Most of that fraud involved not the stereotypical “welfare queen” but working women who were not reporting income from secondary jobs.
Yeah, overall across the country, that is a lot of money. And I’m not saying we should just give up and not fight fraud or have any commonsense measures in place to prevent it. But it usually costs more money to investigate and prosecute fraudulently paid benefits than the government gets back, as illustrated in California in 2010 when the Sacramento County DA received $3 million to fight fraud in In-Home Support Services (for older and disabled adults) and uncovered a whopping 19 cases out of 42,000.
Rather than limiting the way people use their welfare benefits and cutting down on welfare eligibility, I’d rather see the states working on ways to get people off the rolls entirely. I want to see more jobs, living wage laws, and incentives for businesses to provide employees with full benefits packages. I want to see economic growth, not discouraged jobseekers who’ve been looking for over a year with no luck. And I want to see less money invested in policing poor people, and more money invested in looking for the real money-suckers, like corporations avoiding their fair share of taxes.