The Patrick Administration’s Legacy on Poverty, Part One: “Flaws at DTA”

In a widely circulated December op-ed Governor Patrick offered us a balance sheet on his eight years in office. On the plus side of the ledger: economic growth, student achievement, health insurance, energy efficiency and lots lots more. The ledger’s much smaller minus list includes the scandal at the state crime lab, the tragedy at the Department of Children and Families and “flaws” at DTA (the Department of Transitional Assistance, the state agency that manages various public assistance programs including Food Stamps).

To most people, “flaws” at DTA would mean the ones that received enormous publicity following reports issued in 2013 by the Inspector General and the Auditor. Those reports pointed to risks that people not eligible for benefits were nevertheless receiving them, and that the improper use of the debit cards used to issue benefits — known as Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards — was increasing those risks.

The subject of welfare abuse being a form of catnip for some, pretty soon the Herald’s Holly Robichaud, among others, was sufficiently under the influence to inflate the problem into a matter of “hundreds of millions of dollars,” far beyond the potential losses identified by the Inspector General and Auditor. The notion that hundreds of millions of dollars were being wasted was a very convenient fiction for some legislators who, at the same time, were fighting against proposals to increase revenues by a similar amount — why raise taxes when you can stop welfare fraud instead? Ideas about how to foil abuse abounded, and a plan to put Photo ID’s on EBT cards emerged as one clear winner.

Thus a really dumb idea was born. Or, rather, reborn. Years earlier, Governor Mitt Romney had considered the idea of putting Photo ID’s on EBT cards, but ultimately rejected it as impractical and not cost-effective. Impractical, because, like all debit cards, security against EBT card theft comes through the use of a PIN number, not a photograph. Moreover, Food Stamp benefits are calculated based on the resources of all the members of a household, and so all the members of the household are allowed to use the card. Putting a photo of one of the household members on the card simply creates an erroneous impression that no one else in the household is permitted to use the card. And not cost-effective, because the federal government (which funds the Food Stamp program) won’t pay for the extra cost of Photo ID’s, and so if the state wants them it has to pick up the tab. You would search in vain for another program that Mitt Romney thought was a waste of taxpayer money that was so enthusiastically embraced by so many of his supporters.

Fortunately, not everyone was buying the story that the state’s biggest problem was that public benefits might be going to ineligible people. Senator Dan Wolf, for example, told the Boston Chamber of Commerce that “to allow the conversation to turn once again to the few people on public assistance who may be abusing EBT cards is nothing more than blaming the victims, blaming the most vulnerable, and turning us away from the real issues we face.”

And for a time it seemed that Governor Patrick, like Senator Wolf, would resist the Photo ID mania. He suggested, for example, that its cost-effectiveness be measured, but when the Legislature rejected even that modest idea, he capitulated — and then some. His Department of Transitional Assistance got busy and Operation Photo ID started rolling out just before Christmas in 2013, weeks before the deadline the Legislature had set. Glitches depriving people of their Food Stamp benefits happened immediately, and they were sufficiently widespread and serious (8,200 EBT cards mistakenly deactivated, for example) for the federal government to step in with a warning letter to the state. Throughout 2014 the problems persisted, and once again last month, the federal government pressed the state for solutions.

Insisting, despite evidence and multiple warnings to the contrary, that its EBT card rollout had been “an overwhelming success,” DTA has pressed forward with more changes, including the launch of something called the “business process redesign” in late October. Under the redesign, food stamp clients no longer have an assigned case worker and instead are told to call a statewide assistance phone number. Likewise, applications are no longer handled at local offices and are all sent to Taunton for processing.

Another “overwhelming success?” Initial reports are very discouraging. Social service agencies and food pantries are reporting that when Food Stamp clients call the statewide phone number, no one is on the other end. Clients are turned away from local offices if they attempt to deliver an application there. Applications sent to Taunton often disappear, and those that do arrive join a growing backlog of unprocessed paperwork. As of this writing, DTA’s business process redesign looks to rival the Health Care Connector website and the online system for Unemployment Insurance as an information technology calamity.

Ominously, the rate of food stamp participation in Massachusetts appears to be confirming the bad news. Nationwide, the start of an economic recovery is lowering the number of food stamp recipients slightly, but as of September — even before DTA’s launch of its redesign, the decline in Massachusetts is 7.3 percent — four times the national rate. It seems inevitable that DTA’s practices will only accelerate that decline when the numbers for the last quarter of 2014 come in.

So, what “flaws” at DTA should we remember as the legacy of the Patrick administration? Just the ones that suggested that the wrong people were getting help, or also the ones that demonstrated that the right people were not getting help?

The answer might depend on whether, as Governor Patrick has often said, we grow a backbone and stand up for what it is we believe.

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