Second of two parts
Peel away the virtuous side of welfare and its nasty drawbacks jump out. Fraud. Bad incentives. Apathy.
Spokane welfare offices are bombarded with tips that clients are ripping off the system. One office is investigating a family suspected of taking $70,000 in public assistance while secretly owning two businesses.
The welfare system is loaded with haywire incentives, often discouraging both work and marriage. When some newlyweds discover marriage costs them their welfare check, they split, social workers say.
For many poor families, welfare has become a generational way of life. A third of the welfare clients in east Spokane had parents and grandparents who lived on public aid.
At its best, welfare is a security net for the disadvantaged, the unlucky and their innocent children. At its worst, it’s a fraud-ridden mess, and a poverty trap that most every politician, many social workers and recipients alike want to see overhauled.
“Public assistance is not working. That’s no secret,” says John Hentze, supervisor of the east Spokane welfare office. “Welfare is still a kids’ program. If it was just an adults’ program, that would be the end of it. The public wouldn’t put up with it.”
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt designed the nation’s welfare system to keep widows and orphans from starving during the Depression. It was supposed to be a temporary, emergency relief program.
Instead, it swelled into one of the nation’s biggest bureaucracies. During the past 60 years, the welfare rule book has been retooled and expanded by tinkering politicians who approach the challenge like hyperactive kids with too many Legos.
Washington state’s welfare program now offers 47 different health plans. Caseworkers are expected to know a 4-foot stack of ever-changing rules. They crack jokes about the hundreds of forms clients must fill out.
Bernie Nelson, the top public assistance official in Eastern Washington, has listened to the cries for welfare reform for four decades.
He says the latest round, calling for welfare time limits and more, could actually require a bigger, more expensive bureaucracy than the current one.
He grins at the notion that someone has a silver policy bullet that will kill welfare’s problems with one shot. “Nobody has an easy answer to welfare.”
The fraud investigators
Most anybody can walk into a welfare office, and grab a month of food stamps - at least $115 worth - if they are willing to lie, Spokane social workers say.
One fraud investigator says it’s even possible for people to lie their way into a welfare check if they answer questions in the right way.
Spokane public assistance offices receive hundreds of fraud allegations a month. The state relies, in part, on anonymous hotline calls, usually from other welfare recipients or bitter relatives.
The most common offenses are unreported income, hidden assets, and reportedly absent fathers living with their welfare family.
Chances of getting caught are small. Each of Spokane’s three welfare offices has only a couple of investigators with limited tools to police thousands of clients.
The consequences for welfare fraud usually are small, too. If convicted, it’s a felony, but only the big-dollar cases get prosecuted.
For most violators, the penalty is simply a 10 percent reduction in monthly benefits until the “overpayment” is paid off.
In other words, even if people are caught defrauding the government the most common punishment only turns the theft into a no-interest loan.
Investigator Don Hendrix has poked into fraud allegations for the past five years at the state’s east Spokane office. He did casework for eight years before that.
He goes up and down on welfare. Some days it seems to be working right, helping desperate, worthy people. Other days, he says, it’s worse than people imagine.
“I’m of the opinion all welfare clients cheat the system in one way or another,” he says. “They have to. It’s a matter of survival.”
Hendrix suspects half of the welfare moms who say their husbands left them are lying. Another investigator estimates two-thirds of the people who tell him they are homeless are lying.
Hendrix says welfare fraud often involves people who can’t resist the security of a guaranteed monthly check with complete health benefits.
“It’s a better medical plan than you get, and it costs less,” he says, noting there is no co-payment and most everything is covered.
The medical plan apparently seduced a Spokane couple, whose child has chronic medical problems, to pocket about $70,000 worth of public assistance over 10 years. The couple failed to note their income from two businesses, investigators believe.
Perhaps the most high-profile recent welfare fraud case involved Spokane Valley attorney Brad Plumb. He was convicted of illegally taking $7,000 in benefits.
Plumb was fined $7,000 and ordered to do some community service.
The outcome irritates Hendrix, Plumb’s caseworker years ago. “He got a slap on the wrist.”
Welfare recipients are scolded, and told to quit having babies out of wedlock and to get a job.
But the welfare rule book often discourages both marriage and work, according to some caseworkers, fraud investigators and recipients.
For starters, it’s easier for a single parent to qualify for the monthly check. They don’t have to document their recent efforts to work.
Investigators say they see the results of these rules all the time:
Mothers avoid marrying employed, live-in boyfriends because they’ll lose their welfare check.
Newlyweds divorce once they realize they no longer qualify for the check and benefits.
Fathers divorce their wives, then come back and live in the household to secure the check.
Couples with kids from past relationships don’t marry because they’ll lose a welfare check.
A veteran social worker says two Spokane sisters once told him they decided one of them should get pregnant so they could get enough public assistance to afford a place of their own.
The disgusted social worker asked not to be identified. He fears losing his job for not backing the agency claim that welfare doesn’t discourage marriage.
“Welfare doesn’t allow people to fail,” he says. “If you’re a street kid and you’re pregnant, a normal situation tells you you’re in over your head. Welfare says it will take care of you. … People are taking their circumstances and applying them to the rules. That’s the welfare trap.”
One solution? “No marriage certificate. No AFDC (welfare),” he says.
David Blankenhorn, author of “Fatherless America,” visited Spokane last week to discuss why so many fathers abandon their children.
Blankenhorn, a Democrat and social scientist, says welfare feeds the problem. “It is a disincentive to marriage and responsible fatherhood.”
‘They won’t let me get ahead’
The welfare rule book also makes it hard to get or hold a good job. In fact, many social workers and recipients say it discourages work.
If a welfare parent works more than 100 hours in a single month, family benefits are cut off regardless of how much the job pays.
This “100-hour rule” means only certain temporary or part-time jobs can be considered without losing public assistance. Those jobs rarely offer benefits.
To top it off, any monthly income over $90 gets deducted, dollar-for-dollar, from the welfare checks. So where is the incentive to work? ask social workers and recipients.
There are more obstacles.
To qualify for welfare, people must own almost nothing of value. They can’t have a car worth more than $1,500, making it difficult to own reliable wheels to get to a job.
“You have to have an old clunker,” says Alan Gnehm, owner of a 1978 Ford Fairmont station wagon that has trouble starting some mornings. Gnehm wants out of the welfare trap.
The married East Central father of three has his own reform ideas. He wrote President Clinton a letter. He wrote House Speaker Tom Foley before Foley lost last November’s election. He had a talk with 3rd District Rep. Lisa Brown.
He thinks the welfare incentives are upside-down.
“They should reward you for work. Instead, they penalize you for it,” says Gnehm, who gets to keep $90 of the $400 he makes each month.
“I try, but they won’t let me get ahead. You can’t save to get out of the trap.”
‘The poor will always be among us’
Regional social services administrator Bernie Nelson and his assistant, Terry Covey, are trying to find new ways to train and prepare people to get off welfare and into jobs.
Progress often is slow. The Spokane job market, they say, is mostly a web of small businesses offering jobs under $8 an hour, usually without benefits. How can families survive on this? they ask.
Covey says people always want to kick welfare recipients in the rear, “but you’ve got to kick them to somewhere.”
Nelson admits welfare is riddled with problems and that the agency needs to get tougher with people who abuse the system, but he’s proud of the agency’s record in Spokane. “We don’t have to apologize to anyone.”
He winces at today’s welfare bashing, and dislikes many of the more extreme reform proposals, which he feels unfairly hurt children.
But Nelson sees at least one bright spot in this stormy national debate.
“This has already brought an elevation of the level of consciousness of the welfare system like I’ve never seen.”
Out of all the discussion, he says, will spring a stronger sense of public ownership and investment in the issue - no matter what direction welfare goes next.