Following Up on Some Issues

(A few developments on three posts from earlier this year: Baker’s welfare policy, Mass Fiscal’s disclosure policy, the SJC’s ruling on mandatory minimum sentences.)

Back in June, Governor Baker sought unsuccessfully to reduce state welfare payments to families in which a disabled family member was receiving federal disability payments. Under Baker’s plan, as the Herald reported, the state would no longer pay $400 per month to a grandmother who’s caring full time for her 13-year-old granddaughter who cannot walk or talk because of the cerebral palsy that she has had since birth. The cutoff of state funds Baker proposed would have left the family of two to survive on the $750 per month in federal disability payments the granddaughter receives.  The Legislature told the Governor no.

In August, the Supreme Court of New Hampshire struck down a welfare eligibility restriction in that state very similar to the rule Governor Baker wanted Massachusetts to adopt. The federal disability payments, the court ruled, were intended as specific assistance to persons with disabilities and were not intended to be available for the family’s general living expenses. One hopes that if the Legislature’s rejection of Baker’s proposal does not deter him from introducing it again, the New Hampshire Supreme Court decision will.

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In August, after the Legislature passed a law requiring organizations that use direct mail for their electioneering to disclose the names of their five largest donors, just as organizations that use paid television, internet and print advertising must do, the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, purveyor of preposterous allegations about the voting records of its opponents, was left with a choice — either divulge the names of its five biggest donors, or curtail its electioneering.  They recently announced that they would keep their donors’ names secret, which means that their direct mail efforts this election season will not be indulging in their usual farcical claims but will merely encourage recipients to visit their website.  In an effort to portray this decision as a victory, Mass. Fiscal commented that it never wanted to become dull:  “We are always looking at ways to improve our effectiveness in communicating with the voters.”

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In April, the Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments in a District Attorney’s appeal of a case in which the trial judge declined to impose the statutory minimum mandatory prison sentence for drug distribution on a disabled black man who had been convicted of possessing an amount of drugs weighing less than a five-gram packet of sugar.

Earlier this month, the court issued an opinion reversing the trial judge and ordering that the minimum mandatory sentence (3 1/2 years instead of the 2 1/2 years the trial judge ordered)  be imposed. But in that decision, the Court also sent a message to the Legislature that arguments about the unconstitutionality of mandatory minimums, such as the strong evidence of their racially discriminatory application during the twenty years that they have been on the books, might be appropriate for the court to consider in future cases.

Field Notes from the State Budget: Gov Targets the Disabled

[Update: July 23: Both the House and the Senate overrode the Governor’s veto, so the benefits cuts for disabled persons he was proposing will not happen, at least for this year.] 

Pop quiz. Which are there more of in the United States:

(1) stamp collectors, or (2) families receiving cash welfare?

If you answered stamp collectors, you win – congratulations!

This datum — that stamp collectors now outnumber families receiving cash welfare — comes via Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, who devoted a recent column to entering a guilty plea on the charge of once being excessively optimistic about welfare reform. As he explains in the succinctly-titled “Why I Was Wrong About Welfare Reform,” for a time back in the late 90’s welfare reform seemed to be working, in large part because of an employment boom that helped many welfare recipients get jobs. But twenty years and two recessions later, in Kristof’s words, “the embarrassing truth is that welfare reform has resulted in a layer of destitution that echoes poverty in countries like Bangladesh.”

Kristof’s column introduced us to Bobbie Ingraham, a 47-year old grandmother in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who is caring for a toddler granddaughter born with drugs in her system. Ingraham has had a hard life herself, battling addiction, domestic violence and health problems that make it very difficult to find a job. She has no cash income from work, and so her electricity, gas and water have been cut off. Before welfare reform, 41 out of 100 Oklahoma families living in poverty received cash assistance. Today only 7 families out of 100 do, and Bobbie Ingraham’s family is not one of them. Welfare reform promised that fewer families on the welfare rolls would mean more families with jobs and economic stability. Instead, it’s simply meant more widespread and deeper poverty among families with children.

As you might expect, the picture in Massachusetts is not quite as dire as it is in Oklahoma. But it’s nothing to brag about either. Before welfare reform, 81 out of 100 Massachusetts families living in poverty received cash assistance. Today only 39 out of 100 families do.

Which brings us to Governor Baker’s welfare policy. He’s proposing to reduce the number of families receiving cash assistance even further, from the current 33,000 down to 26,000 or so.

Putting this change into effect involves rescinding a welfare eligibility rule that’s been in place since 1972. Under this rule, the benefits that severely disabled people receive from the federal government under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program are not counted as income in determining a family’s eligibility for welfare cash assistance. The Governor wants to start including those disability benefits as income, which he concedes will result in 6,900 families losing their cash assistance grant altogether.

To see how the Governor’s plan would affect one family in the state, consider Teresa Hubbard, a 52-year-old grandmother living in Brighton. She is caring full-time for her 13-year-old granddaughter who cannot walk or talk because of the cerebral palsy that she has had since birth and which is the basis for her receiving about $750 per month in federal disability payments. Because these disability payments don’t currently count as income, Teresa and her granddaughter also receive a cash welfare grant of about $400 per month, for a total monthly income of $1150. If the Governor’s plan goes into effect and disability payments are counted as income, Teresa and her granddaughter would lose their entire cash welfare grant and would be very much at risk of becoming homeless.

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate included language in their annual budgets barring the Governor from putting his plan into effect, but he vetoed that language and intends to eliminate the cash assistance grants of 6,900 families, including Teresa’s, in October.

Unless, of course, the Legislature overrides his veto. The veto override process starts in the House, and  you can find information about contacting your Representative here. While you’re at it, you can also call the Governor at 617-725-4005 and suggest that maybe he could find better uses for his time than finding ways to harm disabled residents of the state who are already living in poverty. Stamp collecting, for example, might be a good choice.