2014-01-24 / Columns

Politics & other Mistakes

Welfare Cadillac
By Al Diamon

We now know how often incredibly stupid people used welfare payments from the state of Maine to make purchases in bars, liquor stores, smoke shops and strip clubs.

We have yet to learn how many incompetent bureaucrats are responsible for allowing these dopes to squander that money.

Earlier this month, Republican Gov. Paul LePage released a report showing that between Jan. 1, 2011 and Nov. 15, 2013, there were 3,701 questionable transactions involving Electronic Benefit Transfer cards (a sort of welfare credit card). LePage claimed this demonstrated that abuse was “eye-opening and indicates a larger problem than initially thought.”

Democrats noted that not only was there no evidence public funds were improperly used (you can get a nice, healthy lunch at many strip clubs), but also that these cases amounted to only two-tenths of 1 percent of all EBT transactions during that period.

The Dems have a point, but in this case, LePage is mostly right. And mostly responsible, too.

Welfare fraud is probably much more extensive than this silly survey reveals. Among those who didn’t get caught in this sting were any recipients of SNAP (what used to be known as food stamps) or TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) with an IQ higher than the lunch served at the average strip club. These more intelligent swindlers used their EBT cards to withdraw money at neutral locations – banks, supermarkets, Zumba studios – before spending the cash on stuff that’s not supposed to be paid for with public assistance. The only people who failed to figure out how to avoid scrutiny were complete idiots. Which probably explains why they were on the dole in the first place.

When you include EBT recipients with functioning neurons above the neck, the rate of corruption is probably significantly higher than a fraction of a percent. It’s likely closer to the number of people who cheat on their income tax (I have enormous faith in human nature, so I estimate that’s only 96 percent) or the ones who don’t always obey speed limits (a figure reduced by excluding senior citizens who never drive faster than the age of their youngest grandchild).

It’s natural to be tempted to take advantage of any system that isn’t closely regulated.

Which brings us to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (motto: Providing Dependable Transportation For Low Income People Since … Well, Maybe By Next Year, But in 2016 For Sure). It’s supposed to be administering welfare laws, just the way it oversees shredding embarrassing records at the state Center for Disease Control; fails to meet federal standards at the Riverview Psychiatric Center, thereby resulting in the loss of a huge chunk of that facility’s budget; and runs up a deficit of more than $100 million in the current fiscal year (we have yet to learn what part of that figure constitutes payments to bars, smoke shops and nude dancing emporiums).

According to a 2012 law, DHHS is responsible for making sure no EBT card is used in a casino (so far, so good), a strip club (oops) and any store that makes half or more of its money selling liquor (fractions are always so tricky).

Let’s be kind. Enforcement of this statute has been spotty. Or to be less kind, nonexistent. The department hasn’t figured out how to monitor such transactions. Because doing so would be complicated, what with 224,000 cards out there, and who knows how many businesses selling stuff they shouldn’t be used for. Where would DHHS get the technology to deal with such an overwhelming mass of data, let alone a program designed to thwart any illegal activity?

Well, for starters, it could call any major credit card company. They all monitor millions of transactions daily looking for anything questionable. My card company called me last year when charges showed up (mere hours before) indicating I was shopping at a convenience store and a college book store in Arkansas. I said I wasn’t, because I was in a strip club in Maine. Doing research. The card company shut down the southern scam within minutes, which briefly deprived me of the use of my plastic. But that was OK, because I learned that the dancers prefer cash tips, anyway.

One final factor to be considered in dealing with welfare fraud: My investigation has identified a woman who receives regular payments from the state, but does nothing of value in return. She isn’t looking for a job, and she accomplishes little each day that doesn’t cost us money. This situation has been going on for three years, during which she’s used her state checks to buy expensive clothes, fine meals, high-end vacations and luxury vehicles – all on the taxpayers’ dime. It’s well past time somebody clamped down on this welfare queen.

If LePage is serious about cutting handouts, he should fire his useless commissioner of health and human services, Mary Mayhew.

Can you use TANF at a tanning salon? SNAP at a chiropractor? EBT to pay an EMT? Enhance my welfare by emailing answers to aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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