By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
---- — BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick said he’s encouraged by welfare system changes rolled out by Senate Democrats yesterday, but House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he still prefers to use the state budget to immediately address targeted reforms to curb abuses, while taking time to review the Senate plan.
Senate President Therese Murray and three of her fellow senators outlined a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s welfare benefit system focused on improving programs that can help transition recipients off public assistance and into the workforce.
The bill also includes a number of measures already adopted by the House, and scheduled for a second vote today, to curb abuse and fraud such as requiring photo identification on electronic benefit transfer cards.
“The system has been stagnant for a long time and we want to shake up the system,” Murray said at a Statehouse press conference, detailing a multi-faceted bill that updates reforms she helped author in 1995 as a newish senator in the last major welfare overhaul.
The bill would require applicants for public assistance to prove they have conducted a job search before receiving benefits, and asks the Department of Transitional Assistance and the Commonwealth Corporation to ramp up efforts to match welfare recipients with jobs, including the development of a job diversion program to connect people with work before they apply for and receive benefits.
Murray said she did find out until last September that many of the welfare-to-work reforms implemented under the 1995 law had been abandoned, including the “full-employment program” that former Gov. Mitt Romney ended 10 years ago.
“I really did not know that it was not being used,” Murray said of the job training and placement program for welfare recipients. “I knew that DTA didn’t like it because it was a lot of work, which is why we’ve moved the job training piece from them over to Commonwealth Corporation who know how to do this.”
The Plymouth Democrat said laws need to be revisited from time to time and there are unintended “loopholes” in the system that need closing, but she said she does not consider her focus on the issue to be a reflection of her career coming full circle as her tenure as president winds downs.
According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, total state spending between 1995 and 2013 on the TAFDC grant program, or Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children, has dropped from $992 million to $315 million when accounting for inflation. Murray said the welfare reforms of the mid-1990s helped reduce caseloads by half from a high of 103,000 families to a low of 49,000 families.
DTA reports that 50,846 families were receiving TAFDC benefits in April, and there were 498,000 Massachusetts families receiving federal SNAP benefits, or food stamps. In fiscal 2013, DTA expects to spend $119.9 million on administration and $654 million on program benefits.
Murray said she spoke to Patrick about the bill last Friday, and delivered a copy to his staff yesterday morning.
“We’re still reviewing it, but based on the bullet points we have it’s actually quite encouraging,” Patrick told reporters. “It emphasizes that welfare is or ought to be a way forward, not a way of life. It gives to the DTA some additional tools and some resources to deal with some of the concerns we all have around program integrity, but obviously we want to look at the bill and evaluate it but the bones of it look pretty good.”
Murray has fast-tracked the Senate welfare reform bill with debate scheduled for Thursday and amendments from senators are due tomorrow at noon. DeLeo met with Murray and Patrick yesterday afternoon, and said he hadn’t yet read the Senate bill.
“I think we need to take more immediate action to address some of the ills of our DTA and I think that that’s the best way to do it is to do those as quickly as possible,” DeLeo said about incorporating some reforms in advancing budget bills.
DeLeo said it could take “a little while” for House leaders to review the Senate bill if it is approved, and that he expects the House would be amenable to some of the ideas that could be addressed later in a separate bill.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Stephen Brewer said the leadership bill would direct “in excess of $20 million” in new spending to workforce training and transitional assistance programs, including $3.3 million to hire 50 new DTA caseworkers, $1.3 million for employment training services, $300,000 for an independent audit of welfare programs, $8 million for child care vouchers and $5 million in the first year to implement photo IDs by August 2014.
“Meaningful reforms also require meaningful investments. It’s not as easy as the rhetoric seems,” Brewer said.
Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, who helped draft the bill and has sat on a commission exploring ways to improve EBT benefits, said the Senate did not want to address welfare reform in a “piecemeal” fashion by tackling some items in the budget.
“Putting a picture on a card is not going to completely diminish the fraud that goes on in Massachusetts or what appears to be fraud in Massachusetts and it has to be part of a comprehensive plan,” Flanagan said.
The Senate also did not include a House-recommended provision allowing DTA to use fingerprints to verify eligibility in cases where there are questions about an applicant’s identity.
Sen. Michael Barrett, a Lexington Democrat, said the bill would make needed updates to the way DTA looks at recipient assets, including the elimination of the $5,000 limit on the value of a family’s car. Barrett said this change will allow recipients to have reliable transportation to get to and from work.
He also called the new requirements that an applicant prove efforts to find a job before becoming eligible for assistance “common sense” and said the changes should not be seen as “punitive.”
“If you’ve tried that and it hasn’t panned out, then come on in,” Barrett said.
Eligible participants in work placement programs would also be given child care in the first year, and employers would receive a state health care subsidy for taking on the employees. After the first year, employers could take the original full-employment tax credit.
Recipients would also be allowed to maintain an “economic independence account” to have some savings for expenditures like first- and last-month rent on an apartment without jeopardizing their eligibility.
A frequent critic of initiatives recommended by Senate Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr on Monday said the system overhaul unveiled by Murray represented a “comprehensive approach” to the issues facing policymakers.
“The bill released today by the Senate Committee on Ways and Means and offered by Senate President Murray and others reflects a comprehensive approach that seeks to transition recipients away from dependence on welfare programs and towards sustainable economic independence,” Tarr said in a statement. “The bill also contains some critical reforms to address fraud and abuse, although it does not contain additional reforms that were offered during Senate budget deliberations.”
Tarr said Republicans would offer amendments, calling the bill a “prime opportunity” to address welfare problems.
While Republicans are eager to tackle the issue of welfare reform, the bill’s reception from Senate liberals is more of a question mark.
Asked whether it was time to address welfare system, Sen. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville) said, “Apparently,” before casting doubt over the prioritization of welfare reform this session.
“I’m not making any suggestions right now. I’m really focused on trying to make sure we have enough money to make sure seniors get home care and little kids get day care,” Jehlen said, adding, “If I had $28 million my first place would be for expanding that and there’s some of that. Eight million is going into child care. That’s good.”
Jehlen also said she favors the idea of helping people attain employment, though she said she has some questions on how the program would work and whether there are suitable jobs to employ people who are receiving benefits.
“The question is, are there jobs for the sorts of people… who are currently receiving benefits. I certainly know a lot of people who aren’t receiving benefits who are having a hard time getting jobs,” Jehlen said.
Rebekah Gewirtz, director of government relations and political action for the National Association of Social Workers Massachusetts Chapter, said the association supports reforms that will break the cycle of poverty.
“If the changes help people to get out of poverty, then that’s a good thing. If the changes are punitive, then that’s more problematic,” Gewirtz said. She said, “At the moment, there’s a lot of evidence that the program actually does work effectively.”