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.        

 

In a Coma? Don’t Forget to Keep Exercising Your Personal Responsibility.

From Columbus, Ohio, comes the story of a woman whose welfare and food stamp benefits were terminated because she failed to attend a job training program she was required to enroll in. The reason she missed the training was that she was in the hospital, in an induced coma, fighting for her life.

If you are thinking this must all have just been a big mistake, keep reading.

The woman, Kimberly Thompson, once had a warehouse job packing boxes that enabled her to support herself and her and her 15-year old daughter. But in May, 2013, she needed to have a hysterectomy. After the operation, she was unable to return to her physically demanding job right away. She applied for and began receiving cash assistance, Medicaid and food stamps, and she enrolled in a job training program to meet the work requirement that was a condition for receiving cash assistance. But shortly afterward, an infection she had contracted following her surgery worsened dramatically, and her doctors placed her in a coma in order to save her life.

When she awakened from the coma, she discovered that her cash assistance and food stamps had been terminated. She called the welfare agency to find out why and learned that the reason was that she had missed her training class. The agency gave her two days to prove that she had a good reason not attending. Weak, unable to move (seven of her toes had been amputated) and only slowly regaining her cognitive capacities, she was unable to do so before the agency ended her benefits.

In agency-speak, Thompson had violated the Self Sufficiency Contract that she had signed. That contract, which set out a timetable for her to attain “self-sufficiency and personal responsibility,” said that she would face sanctions if she did not comply in full with her work assignments. And when she missed her training class, the agency ended her cash assistance immediately. Ohio law allowed her to appeal the agency’s sanction, and at that appeal she was able to convince the agency that being in a coma was a satisfactory reason for missing class. Eventually her benefits were restored, but by that time — unable to work and without any other income — she became homeless.

If you are thinking that the welfare agency in Ohio, whose policy is to terminate benefits first and entertain pleas from desperate people later, is made up of particularly mean-spirited people, keep reading.

Under federal law, states are required to show that at least half of their recipients of cash assistance are employed or engaged in job training. Any state that falls short faces the loss of federal funding.

The obvious way for a state to meet this requirement is to ensure that cash assistance recipients get jobs or job training. But that’s not the easiest way. The easiest way is simply to eliminate people from the welfare rolls altogether — decreasing the denominator of a fraction can yield the same result as increasing the numerator. The cash assistance caseload in Ohio has fallen by more than 30 percent since 2011, a result in part of its policy of terminating benefits first and entertaining pleas from desperate people later. And Ohio is only one of many states using strict work requirements to reduce caseloads.

*****

Could something similar happen in Massachusetts? It may have already started. The cash assistance caseload here has fallen by 19 percent since 2011, not too far behind Ohio’s 30 percent reduction. State welfare agencies do not keep track of how families fare after they stop receiving cash assistance, so we have no assurances that these families are living in stable situations. Inquiring minds would be interested to know whether this caseload decline (numbering 10,000 families), is contributing to the dramatic rise in family homelessness in Massachusetts over the same time.

And our welfare agency is getting more authority to terminate cash assistance benefits. In the past, families that include a disabled family member have generally not been subject to a work requirement. A new law, which was enacted by the Legislature this summer and which has not yet been implemented, allows the agency to adopt a stricter standard of disability, which would have the effect of making more families subject to a work requirement. In passing this law, the Legislature acknowledged the extra difficulties disabled parents would have in meeting a work requirement, so it also provided funds for services to help families receiving cash assistance make their transitions to work. But when the state encountered a budget shortfall recently, funding for these services was cut by more than 90 percent.

Our incoming Governor, therefore, will have a lot of choices to make — between reducing caseloads and reducing poverty.

Shaunna O’Connell, Welfare Queen, Goes for her Third Term

It’s been a while since we checked in on the race for State Representative in the Third Bristol District (Taunton and Easton), where Republican Shaunna O’Connell is seeking re-election to her third term.

As you may know, Representative O’Connell has made a big name for herself by raising at every opportunity the spectre that public benefits, like welfare, are going to people who don’t deserve them, like immigrants. She’s a regular on the pages of the Boston Herald, and lately, as her website informs us, she’s taking her signature issue national on Fox News. Her Fox hosts are as uninterested as she is in mentioning the fact that the entire welfare program in Massachusetts accounts for less than one percent of the state budget, or in exploring whether other issues affecting her constituents may also be deserving of attention.

This year her electoral opponent is Taunton native and Gold Star brother Keavin Duffy, Jr., who won the Democratic nomination as a write-in candidate and who believes that the growing income inequality in Massachusetts is an issue that the residents of Taunton and Easton may also be interested in.

Candidate Duffy has challenged Candidate O’Connell to debates and has gotten under her skin recently by pointing out that she has sponsored legislation that would replace the state government employee retirement system with a voluntary 401K style plan. This observation provoked an angry response from her campaign manager, who stated unequivocally that during her time as a State Representative “she has not filed any legislation or amendments regarding changing pensions.”

Hmm. Except that she has. Here it is in black and white (and you can find link to this amendment on the State Legislature’s website here):

Representatives Webster of Pembroke, Adams of Andover, Levy of Marlborough, Lyons of Andover and O’Connell of Taunton move to amend the bill by adding the following section…

The provisions of [the state employee retirement law] relating to defined benefit plans shall not apply to any employee hired after July 1, 2011. They shall be covered by 401 (K) coverage with the state, county, city or town providing a 7 per cent match….

Obvious and categorical misstatements like this one are the kind of thing that prompt additional scrutiny of a candidate’s positions. Further on his letter, for example, the campaign manager says this: “O’Connell has been a fighter for the workers of the district. She crossed party lines to vote for the minimum wage increase.”

Well, that’s true enough, so far as it goes. But it does omit the fact that Representative O’Connell also voted in favor of an amendment that would have increased the minimum wage by a much smaller amount. A fully accurate statement of Representative O’Connell’s view on the minimum wage issue would disclose that she favored an increase from $8 per hour over three years to only $9.50 per hour, rather than the $11 per hour that was enacted into law. In other words, Representative O’Connell thinks that when the minimum wage is fully phased in 2017, workers making that amount — including those who are her constituents — really ought to be earning $3000 less per year.

Not surprising that one side is eager to debate the issues of importance to the citizens of the Third Bristol district and the other side is eager to go national on Fox News.

“‘Shut up,’ they explained.” House Leaders Put Welfare and Local Aid Off Limits for Upcoming Budget Debate

The House won’t be holding its debate on the annual budget for a couple of weeks, but they set the ground rules for it yesterday.

House leadership has been imposing various constraints on the budget debate for the past dozen years or so. The most significant of these is the “Consolidated Amendment” process, under which the House Ways and Means Committee groups the amendments (which last year totaled 897) into subject matter areas and then, after meeting with interested Reps in a side room near the House Chamber, drafts a single amendment for that subject matter area incorporating some –but certainly not all — of the amendments filed.

Some years, the “Holland Amendment” has been in effect. This rule, named for Iris Holland, a Representative from Longmeadow and advocate of fiscal restraint, required that any amendment exceeding $100,000 had to be offset by savings from some other area of the budget.

This year, there’s no Holland Amendment, but, for the first time in my memory, the budget ground rules include a prohibition on amendments pertaining to two subject matter areas — welfare and local aid (the money paid by the state to cities and towns for schools, police, fire protection and other services).

House leadership defends its rule by pointing out that the issue of welfare was debated already this session and is now in Conference Committee, and the House voted unanimously on a local aid resolution earlier this year, so the members have had their say on that issue as well.

But the Republican members of the House, all of whom opposed the new prohibition, are pretty steamed about it. We can expect to hear repeated denunciations of this latest lack of transparency, especially because local aid and welfare have typically been the favorite subjects of the minority party’s budget advocacy. Increasing aid to cities and towns, besides being universally popular, is also a useful proxy for decreasing spending on state programs. And these reps of late have been obsessed with welfare fraud, which they enjoy using to monopolize the budget debate with long and loud condemnations of what they claim is the chief source of the state’s fiscal woes. (Please try to pay no attention to the fact that the welfare program accounts for less than one percent of the state budget.) Now that welfare is off the table, they will be in a frantic search for new scapegoats.

What to think of the new ground rules? Although as a general matter, more transparency is certainly preferable to less, the “torch and pitchfork” caucus has been hijacking the budget debate for years now, so I’m in favor.

The Kind of Story the Mass. GOP Dreams About?

State officials disclosed that nearly 700 inmates at state prisons and county jails have been collecting state welfare payments and another 770 may have been receiving federal Supplemental Social Security (SSI) or Medicaid benefits.

The Governor has come under fire since reports surfaced that inmates at county jails were illegally on welfare.

Under federal law, welfare checks are supposed to stop when a recipient is sent to jail. But when state officials ran a computer match between welfare rolls and the criminal records of 20,000 inmates in county jails and state prisons, they found that 699 inmates were listed as eligible for some form of state assistance.

The state’s Secretary of Health and Human Services said he did not know the cost to the state of the prison welfare fraud because it is unknown how long the recipients were simultaneously collecting welfare and serving prison time.

Well, maybe it’s the kind of story the Mass GOP dreams about, except that…the state’s Secretary of Health and Human Services who did not know how long the inmates had been receiving government benefits and therefore couldn’t determine the cost to the state was Charlie Baker, their candidate for governor this year.

You could look it up: Boston Globe, September 24, 1994.

Any volunteers to break the news to Shaunna?

Personal Responsibility, Corporate Style: A Lesson from Johnson & Johnson

An item from a few days back that State House followers might have missed:

Last Monday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley announced that the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson agreed to settle charges that it had encouraged physicians and pharmacies — through direct payments and kickbacks –to prescribe and promote drugs for uses that had not been approved as safe or effective.

Among the drugs illegally promoted by Johnson & Johnson was Risperdal. Although Risperdal had been approved only for treating patients with schizophrenia, Johnson & Johnson established a special sales force to sell the drug in nursing homes, touting its ability to control disruptive behaviors like agitation and impulsiveness in elderly patients with dementia, while declining to disclose that the drug could also cause serious health problems — including an increased risk of strokes — in those patients.

Under the settlement, Johnson & Johnson will pay $2.2 billion in fines and penalties, $62.5 million to Massachusetts. That $62.5 million is only a fraction of the money the state paid in false claims for Risperdal. And it’s only a fraction of the profit — $28.9 billion — that Johnson & Johnson has made on Risperdal. And none of that settlement money goes to the families whose loved ones were given Risperdal and experienced health problems as a consequence – they are on their own.

As it happened, on the day of the Risperdal announcement, members of the House of Representatives were busy crafting amendments to the welfare bill that House leadership had put forward. Busiest, as usual on the subject of welfare, were the members of the minority party, always deeply concerned to find and thwart those who, according to the press release of Deputy Sheriff Shaunna O’Connell, would “game the system and abuse the trust of Massachusetts citizens.” The very, very few people (7/10’s of one percent of recipients) who have what the Republicans regard as suspiciously high balances on their EBT cards remain on their most-wanted list of those who need to learn “personal responsibility.” (If you’re interested, the average balance among the 550,000 households who receive assistance through EBT cards is $45.)

In commenting on the Risperdal settlement, the Johnson & Johnson spokesperson was at pains to emphasize that only one criminal charge had been entered and that charge was entered against the company, not against any one individual. Indeed, the person in charge of marketing when the drug was being actively and improperly promoted for geriatric patients, Alex Gorsky, is now the company’s chief executive.

In other words, at Johnson & Johnson, there may have been corporate misconduct, but there was certainly no personal responsibility.

When Will Our Legislature Be Done With “Welfare Fraud”?

On Sunday evening, negotiators from the State Senate and House of Representatives got to “yes” on a pair of spending bills (links here and here), and yesterday, the full Legislature approved them and sent them to the Governor.

If you’ve been following our Legislature this year, you have probably noticed how often the issue of welfare fraud comes up. The Republicans, of course, are always eager to raise suspicions about public benefits programs. And the Democratic leadership has concluded that making promises to “root out” welfare fraud (and thereby implying that fraud is rampant when it is not) deflects the discussion away from the tax increases they voted for but are not eager to defend. So, no surprise that both of the bills passed yesterday include new restrictions (the much preferred term is “crackdowns”) in the state’s safety net programs.

One of the new restrictions requires many recipients of food stamps (SNAP) or cash assistance to come to a welfare office to have their photograph taken. The photograph will appear on a new EBT card that the state will issue. If Massachusetts adopts this policy (and only a veto by the Governor stands in its way), it will be the only state in the nation to require photo ID’s on EBT cards. Other states have decided against photo ID’s, concluding that they would add millions of dollars in administrative costs and would do little to deter fraud (but would do a great deal to deter the efficient distribution of benefits to needy and eligible people). New York has opted against photo ID’s, for example. Interestingly, so has Massachusetts: former Governor Mitt Romney, “Mr. Cost-Benefit” himself, discontinued the photo ID policy when it failed his test.

So to watch the Legislature insist on going forward with the photo ID plan was to watch the triumph of dogma over reason. Senators Sonia Chang-Diaz and Jamie Eldridge, in the roles of responsible bean-counters-against-government-waste, offered the very rational proposal that the photo ID requirement should not take effect until the Auditor had determined that it would save more money than it would cost. In rebuttal, Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer offered no evidence that it would save more money than it would cost. Instead he simply circled back to the original premise: “what I hear is fix our welfare system.” Sadly, that argument carried the day.

And even with these two latest bills, we may not have heard the last on the subject of welfare. Last month, the Senate passed another welfare bill. (This one at least acknowledges that the policy goal ought to be the elimination of poverty, not simply the elimination of fraud — credit where credit due.) The House of Representatives has so far concerned itself solely with the issue of fraud, conjuring monsters of deceit and then drafting legislation to slay them, and it intends to respond to the Senate bill later this year with its own proposal.

Based on what we have seen so far, the best course is never getting to “yes” on this one.

SIDEBARS:
1. Want to register your disapproval of the Photo ID proposal with the Governor, who could veto it? Call 617-725-4005 and urge him to veto sections 4, 75, 76 and 77 of House Bill 3839, which is now on his desk. Send a message to the Legislature that they have more important work to do.

2. Many members of the Senate deserve thanks for their efforts to improve the welfare bill during the Senate’s June 20 debate. In alphabetical order, my nominations are: Michael Barrett, Sonia Chang-Diaz, Katherine Clark, Cynthia Creem, Sal Di Domenico, Kenneth Donnelly, Eileen Donohue, Benjamin Downing, Jamie Eldridge, Barry Finegold, Linda Dorcena Forry, Pat Jehlen, Mark Montigny, Marc Pacheco, Karen Spilka, Dan Wolf. (I’d appreciate hearing about any omissions.)