Mass. Senate leaders unveil welfare reform plan

Welfare overhaul unveiled by Mass. Senate leaders targets fraud, seeks to put people to work

Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) -- Massachusetts Senate Democratic leaders unveiled a plan Monday to overhaul the state's welfare system by moving more recipients off public benefits and into the workforce while reducing the potential for fraud and waste.

The proposal, touted by its supporters as one of the most comprehensive attempts at welfare reform in the country and the most sweeping in Massachusetts in nearly 20 years, was scheduled for debate by the full Senate on Thursday and followed several critical examinations of the state's welfare agency.

The bill would require more than $22 million in new state spending, but Senate leaders say the costs would be offset by taking people more people off welfare rolls and eliminating abuse.

Several provisions also target a so-called "cliff effect," which keeps many recipients on welfare because it's better for them financially than working at a low-paying job.

Able-bodied people would be required to seek work — first on their own and later with the help of state-sponsored job training programs — before they can collect benefits, said Senate President Therese Murray.

The bill would also "close the existing loopholes that continue to serve as incentives for individuals to stay on welfare instead of working, threatening the economic independence of many our residents in the system and in unfortunate cases, allowing some recipients to game the system," Murray said.

Among the proposals to counter fraud is a requirement that photo IDs be put on all electronic benefit transfer cards used by welfare recipients by August 2014. Critics of the EBT cards, which work much like bank-issued debit cards, say they frequently fall into the hands of unauthorized individuals.

The bill would give the Department of Transitional Assistance access to data from other agencies in determining welfare eligibility, and would require that applicants who declare their own eligibility do so under penalties of perjury. In no case would a self-declaration be the only verification of an individual's eligibility.

All welfare recipients would be required to obtain permanent Social Security numbers within three months of receiving benefits, and the bill would fund more fraud investigators and caseworkers within the welfare agency.

While declining to comment on specific provisions, Gov. Deval Patrick said he was encouraged by the Senate proposal.

"It emphasizes that that welfare is, or ought to be, a way forward, not a way of life," Patrick told reporters prior to a meeting with Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

One of the chief architects of the bill, Sen. Michael Barrett, said the proposed welfare changes aren't meant as punitive, but are common-sense measures liberals and conservatives can agree on.

"Before you even go on welfare and ideally as a substitute for it, we're going to first ask you to look for a job on your own," said Barrett, D-Lexington.

To help avoid the cliff effect and remove incentives for people to stay on welfare, recipients who find a full-time job would be allowed to retain child care vouchers for up to one year.

Families would be allowed to exempt more of their assets from income eligibility limits, including the value of one car and any money earned by a teenage household member in a part-time job.

The bill would also earmark $15 million to provide health insurance subsidies to private-sector employers who make a commitment to hiring low-income people to keep them off welfare.

"It is not cheap," Senate Ways and Means chairman Stephen Brewer, D-Barre, said of the bill. "But in the long run, it's an investment."

A recent state audit found more than 1,000 cases of welfare benefits being paid to people who had died or people using Social Security numbers of people who have died. While Gov. Deval Patrick's administration disputed those figures, the audit and other recent investigations have amped up the pressure to overhaul the system.

Senate minority leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, praised the bill as a "prime opportunity" to reform the welfare system, while indicating that Republicans planned to offer amendments to strengthen the proposal.

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