How much fraud is too much?

Even those on the left can’t deny that there is rampant fraud in welfare. The only real point of debate between left and right on the issue is the question of “how much fraud is acceptable?”

Conservatives get irritable with any fraud, that much is certain. Viewing taxpayer dollars as money forcibly stolen from the people and earmarked for the wasteful and inefficient spending priorities of government, even a single case of a welfare check being spent in a bar or a strip club incites fury.

Liberals, on the other hand, resign themselves to the inevitability of something happening in a large, complicated, government-run system. Viewing fraud as little more than something akin to government shrinkage, the cost of doing business if you will, they view welfare as a “big picture” enterprise and are less bothered with individual abuses.

Indeed, the only people who ever seem to bring up fraud in the system are Republicans, while liberals tend to say things like “fraud represents only a tiny proportion of the total dollars spent by welfare recipients.”

This issue has been a centerpiece of the current administration in Augusta, and minority (formerly majority) Republicans in the Legislature. This week, EBT data was released that showed some startling things about what welfare money is being spent on.

According to the BDN, “The data released by the governor show more than 3,000 transactions from Jan. 1, 2011, through Nov. 15, 2013, at smoke shops, and more than 650 transactions at bars, sports pubs and strip clubs. Those transactions include purchases at the check-out counter and withdrawals from on-premises ATMs. The state does not track what is purchased in EBT transactions.”

This is, and frankly should be, alarming. While it is true that these transactions make up a small percentage of the overall purchases and withdrawals made on EBT cards, it is still a lot.

And it goes beyond these highly questionable transactions. DHHS records show that roughly $2.8 million has been spent outside of the state of Maine by EBT users in just the last three years.

While there are undoubtedly reasonable and legitimate excuses for why a person may spend EBT money out of state, much of this money is being spent in locations that are popular vacation destinations, such as the area surrounding Disney World in Florida.

For what it is worth, Gov. Paul LePage has introduced legislation that would put restrictions on this type of behavior.

But these anecdotal issues are hardly the end of abuse to welfare. There is an unseen element that can not be quantified in facts and figures, such as the welfare recipient who uses his or her welfare benefits to buy food and personal cash to buy candy, cigarettes and alcohol. There is always a way to game the system.

Two years ago, Scarborough’s Christine Rouselle wrote a column about her observations of welfare abuse while working at a Walmart, and it struck such a chord that she made national news and received marriage proposals.

Her observations? People with expensive electronics using EBT cards to buy food, extravagant purchases of expensive items that were nowhere near necessary to help get back on one’s feet, and everything from jewelry to action figures.

I know very few people in Maine who have not seen similar things in the check-out line, which is ultimately why the point she was making caught on so quickly.

Welfare, for all its noble and altruistic intentions, is currently set up in such a way that abuse is easy and common.

The hard-earned dollars of working Mainers are wasted as a result, and in many cases the system is doing the exact opposite of what it was designed to do, namely to give people help getting back on their feet and back into the workforce.

There has long been a suspicion among conservatives that welfare discourages ambition by removing motivation, and that it locks people in poverty by making poverty more palatable.

Without any question, this is true, though not by any means universally so. Indeed, most people who are on welfare do use it for temporary help and want to get back on their feet as immediately as possible. By most, I mean the overwhelming majority of people.

The point of highlighting fraud and abuse in welfare is not to destroy it, or malign the people on it. I have had family on welfare, and LePage is quite proud of having “escaped” welfare. It is a good program that helps people and must continue to do so.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fatally flawed and set up to make said fraud and abuse easy. Welfare reform is necessary, because every wasted dollar is a representation of the hard work of a taxpayer, and that should never be written off as unimportant.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.