People who think the state could better balance its budget by cracking down on welfare fraud should have been disappointed with Gov. LePage’s radio address last week. Despite spending $700,000 a year on eight additional fraud inspectors who fielded about 1,100 leads, the governor reported that only 45 cases of alleged fraud were referred to law enforcement.
That indicates that although the Department of Health and Human Services budget is substantial, welfare fraud contributes only a tiny share of the cost.
But the governor still touts his record in this arena as if it were a great accomplishment. In his radio address, he proudly noted that only 10 fraud cases were referred to law enforcement in 2010 — before he took office — and the number immediately rose to 32 cases in 2011, growing to 45 cases last year. But the governor does not say how much the state avoided paying out in fraudulent claims or how much money Maine recovered in return for its $700,000-a-year investment.
It was likely not very much. Contrary to popular belief, public assistance benefits here are very modest. For instance, Maine’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program offers the lowest benefits in New England, and they haven’t been increased since 2001. The maximum benefit for a family of three is less than $500 a month. If all 45 of the 2012 fraud suspects are guilty, the money saved would not likely add up to anything near what the state spent to recover it.
No one should tolerate welfare fraud, which is essentially stealing from your neighbors. But in his spending and rhetoric, the governor makes it sound like a much bigger problem than the evidence suggests.
By feeding the myth that the bulk of people who rely on government services for food, shelter and health care are cheating the system, the governor justifies cutting services to people who really need them.
The LePage administration has had two years to uncover massive fraud in the state’s human service programs. So far, the investigators have identified 77 suspects, at the cost of $1.4 million over two years. We wonder when the governor will admit that he was wrong about fraud and show as much zeal about addressing the real problems of poverty in Maine.