Friday, January 11, 2013

Welfare Fraud: Let's Get the Story Right

By now you’ve probably heard or read the news stories about the use of state Electronic Benefits cards in vice locations like liquor stores, gaming halls, and strip clubs. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, the New York Post the National Review and influential blogger Michelle Malkin have all weighed in on this misuse of taxpayers’ dollars this week.

Let me say from the start, I think it’s reprehensible that an adult would take money intended to help poor children—to provide clothing, shelter and the necessities of life—and use that cash for their own gratification-booze, broads and bingo.

But to read or see the stories this week you would think that 435 Congressmen, not to mention countless staff in multiple executive agencies, the White House, states, contractors and program regulators neither knew nor cared about what was going on. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Electronic Funds Transfer Association and its eGovernment Payments Council have worked diligently with various government agencies over an extended period of time to solve this problem. Here’s the backstory you didn’t hear from the media this week:

In December 2011 EFTA and eGPC representatives met with the General Accountability Office to define the problem of misuse of welfare funds and talk about what solutions would be practical in solving it.

In January 2012 eGPC launched a survey of the 50 states to determine the extent of the problem and steps that states had taken to resolve it, since states are empowered by law to administer the electronic benefits programs.

In February 2012 eGPC began work on a white paper, Restricting Access to Tanf Funds at Specific Merchant Locations. Tanf is the acronym for the program that distributes cash subsidies to poverty-stricken families.

Also, in February Congress passed, and the president signed, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act.  Section 4004 of that bill specifically made accessing or using Tanf benefits in liquor stores, casinos or strip clubs illegal.

On April 17 of last year EFTA met with regulators from the Department of Health and Human Services, the federal agency in charge of the Tanf program to discuss how DHHS would work with states to enforce the law. Chairing the meeting was Mark Greenburg, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Administration for Children and Families. ACF is the branch of DHHS responsible for Tanf.

A week later, EFTA hosted a webinar on the issue to explain to explain the new law and what states could do to comply with it. Mr. Greenburg, who would be in charge of regulating states’ compliance with the law, participated in the webinar, a sign that DHHS considered this a serious regulatory matter.

On April 25, 2011 DHHS published a request for public comment on the new law and how states should go about enforcing it.

Two days later eGPC released Restricting Access to TANF Funds at Specific Merchant Locations.
In May, the eGPC conducted another survey of states, this time to gauge exactly the extent of the problem on a state level.

On June 4, 2012 EFTA, on behalf of itself and its eGovernment Payments Council, responded to DHHS’ request for public comment with a 12-page reply. The comment letter included the results of the May survey of states, technical information, and recommendations on how to best enable compliance with Section 4004.
In addition, scores of interested groups, companies and individuals submitted commentary to DHHS on compliance with Section 4004.

Finally, in July of last year the GAO issued its long-awaited report, Tanf Electronic Benefit Cards: Some States Are Restricting Certain TANF Transactions, but Challenges Remain.

Since then DHHS regulators have been engaged in the federal regulatory process: drafting regulations to ensure compliance with the law, reviewing them, putting them out for public comment one last time, and issuing the final regulations. This isn’t bureaucracy. It is part of our system of getting laws enacted and enforced in a fair, transparent and democratic way. I’m sure enactment of laws is faster and easier in Cuba or China.

So images of pole dancing, cheap liquor and slot machine tendonitis  may make for good copy, but they do very little to inform the debate on welfare fraud. And while most sane people want these tax dollars spent the way Congress intended them, stories of Tanf-financed strip trips do nothing to advance that cause.

Next time one of these stories comes up let’s hope the media takes 20 minutes to dig in and find the real backstory.  

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