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.

Everybody Say Cheese – Update on Photo ID’s on EBT Cards

Update, December 23: The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the food stamp program, last week stepped in to the controversy surrounding EBT card Photo ID’s, suggesting that the state’s welfare department had acted too hastily in putting a program into place:

…the sheer volume of households potentially without access to their benefits suggests that DTA has pursued a rushed implementation of the [Photo ID] requirement without taking care to put adequate safeguards in pace for eligible, participating households.

The feds went on to ask the state to stop the Photo ID program temporarily in order to fix the numerous problems that are causing eligible households to have their benefits suspended. (Click on link to read their letter to the state.)

So far, the state is saying no to that request, a rather surprising response for a state to be giving the federal government, which pays for the food stamp benefits that half a million residents of Massachusetts receive (not to mention a rather surprising response for the Patrick administration to be giving to the Obama administration).

Only six months ago, Governor Patrick’s position on the value of Photo ID cards included a bit of skepticism: in agreeing to the new requirement, he also suggested that its utility be reviewed to make sure that it was preventing more fraud than it was costing. However, to judge by his administration’s eagerness to put the program in place ahead of schedule and its refusal last week to halt the program even temporarily, that skepticism has given way to the politically expedient position that the prevention of fraud is a loftier goal than the prevention of hunger. As the Governor’s welfare commissioner has put it, “I think anything that makes people feel like we are doing all we can to make sure that only people who are eligible for benefits are getting them, we are open to do.” Anything, apparently, even if it involves the deprivation of food to needy and eligible families. At Christmas.

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[Original Post – December 17, 2013]

Remember this past summer when the Legislature decided to make the state’s welfare agency issue new EBT cards to people getting SNAP assistance (aka food stamps)? Cards with photo ID’s on them? Cards that would ward off fraud?

Well, Project EBT Photo ID is underway, and we’ve got an update. Apparently the rollout has run into problems. Some of the people getting food stamps do not have their photo on file already at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, so they have to come in to have their pictures taken. Then, during picture-taking time, there was a sewage backup at the Framingham welfare office, forcing that building to close. And then the state’s EBT card vendor, the Xerox Corporation, mistakenly “deactivated” hundreds of cards last week, leaving those card holders (on the weekend before a snowstorm) with carts full of groceries but no way to get them out of the store.

According to State Rep. Shaunna O’Connell, who is the idea’s head cheerleader, a much bigger problem is that the people who run the stores where EBT cards are used pretty much in the dark about the entire Photo ID program. “Nobody understands the process,” she complains.

And the reason that nobody understands the process is that the process is based on a false premise. The store owners are under the entirely understandable but entirely incorrect assumption that the person using the EBT card must be the same person whose picture appears on the card. But that’s not the way the program works. This is not Voter ID (although it seems likely that’s where the idea came from). Food stamp benefits are calculated based on the income and expenses of all the members of a household, and so all the members of the household are allowed to use the card. That’s the federal law that governs this federally-funded program. Putting a photo of the primary food stamp recipient on the card wrongly implies that no one else is permitted to use the card, and it does nothing to deter fraud. That’s what the PIN is for, just like on your bank debit card. (If a photo deterred fraud, don’t you think that the banks would have insisted that one be put there?)

Although requiring a photo ID does not stop fraud, it does deter the efficient distribution of food stamps to needy and eligible people, and it costs the state a lot of money besides. Maybe that’s the reason that no other state in the country requires photo ID’s and why Mitt Romney (Mr. Cost/Benefit Analysis himself) abandoned the idea when he was our Governor.

If you’re thinking about new year’s resolutions, maybe consider a request to your lawmakers to stop spending the state’s money making it harder for those of our residents who have limited resources to feed themselves. And happy holidays.