“It should be about moving people from welfare to work.”

– President Clinton’s first principle of welfare reform

Nothing inflames the political passions of conservatives like welfare abuse. It conjures in them fiery resentment of the nanny state and those who take advantage of it. Yet armed only with anecdotal evidence of widespread abuse, conservatives have historically struggled to make a convincing case for welfare reform.

Thanks to the publication of a trove of welfare data, there may be a change in the wind this spring.

In January, the Maine Heritage Policy Center published the results of a several-month-long investigation into Maine’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash welfare program. The report was based on three years’ worth of data provided by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, including records of transactions involving Electronic Benefit Transfer cards – the plastic used to access welfare benefits.

EVIDENCE OF WELFARE ABUSE

Our aim in making the data public was to provide a factual foundation for a conversation about welfare abuse and reform. If welfare abuse is happening, then we suspected the data might provide evidence.

So what did we find?

Over the past three years, Mainers have accessed welfare cash at liquor stores, cigarette shops, bowling alleys, gambling establishments, amusement parks, strip clubs and even a pet store, a tattoo parlor and a gun shop. Those are damning facts. The data also show welfare cash has been accessed in all 50 states – yes, Hawaii and Alaska included – Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. EBT cardholders even accessed cash at five-star resorts and Disney World.

Now, there are many good reasons someone might spend welfare in another state: fleeing domestic abuse, military relocation, natural disaster, etc. And it is entirely possible the only ATM that Dad could find when he was shopping for little Timmy’s school supplies happened to be at PT’s Show Club. But the facts at least hint at a problem worth investigating.

FLAWED GRASP OF THE PROBLEM

Some have suggested the data “prove” welfare abuse is virtually nonexistent because the LePage administration flagged some 3,700 transactions out of more than 1 million as suspicious. I reject that conclusion, for it is premised on a fundamental misunderstanding of the TANF program and a limited idea of what constitutes abuse.

For starters, the vast majority of TANF funds are withdrawn from ATMs as cash. That cash could be spent on shampoo, heroin or given to a Karl Rove super PAC. Once it becomes cash, only the recipient knows how it’s spent, so it’s not useful to calculate abuse rates.

Second, limiting our definition of abuse to transactions at suspicious or questionably named venues is unhelpful because it does not capture the true scope of abuse.

To illustrate: If John spends his money on alcohol and tobacco, should taxpayers subsidize his grocery shopping? Likewise, if John can afford vacations to Disney World or Honolulu, should taxpayers pay for his clothing and household goods when he gets home?

All this is to say, welfare can be abused, even in instances where legitimate goods are purchased legally from legitimate venues, if the recipient is not truly needy.

Two goals of the TANF program, according to the federal government, are “to provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for” and “to end dependency of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work and marriage.” It’s difficult to see how subsidizing vacations and unhealthy habits reduces dependence on government, helps poor children and encourages work and family.

Indeed, the data suggest Maine’s welfare system, in many instances, is being used not as a social safety net but as a lifestyle enhancement. And when the social safety net becomes a lifestyle enhancement, that is welfare abuse.

LEGISLATION ADDRESSES ISSUES

The state Legislature will soon consider legislation that would address some, but not all, of the problems in Maine’s TANF system. Armed with the facts, lawmakers have an opportunity to work together on common-sense legislation that ensures welfare is achieving its goals.

Welfare reform is about fairness. The system presently forces working taxpayers to subsidize their neighbors’ lifestyles – that’s not fair. It’s time to fix the system. To do so, conservatives must replace anecdote-driven emotionalism with reasoned argument and facts. The former may win elections, but only the latter can effect a solution. 

Steven E. Robinson, a Dexter native and graduate of Bowdoin College, is editor of TheMaineWire.Com and a policy analyst for The Maine Heritage Policy Center. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]