Swipe welfare cheats off the system

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In 1996, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony picked up a Grammy Award nomination for its hit single, “1st of Tha Month,” an ode to welfare recipients’ celebration of the magical moment when government checks arrived — when a new infusion of cash was available to spend as they pleased.

When the song hit the airwaves, government “checks” were actual paper checks, sent by mail. Today, “checks” are delivered as automated electronic transfers to EBT cards so the “1st of tha month” is now the strike of midnight on that date.

That explains the parade of folks hitting ATM machines at midnight last Tuesday night when January gave way to February.

On YouTube, the anticipation of midnight was clear, as comments were posted on Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s video, including the gleeful, “I get my welfare money in a couple hourrrrs.”

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As well as the cynical observation: “How fitting that tomorrow is the 1st of the month and so many will roll into Walmart at midnight with a fully charged EBT card and roll out with a buggy overflowing with way more food than any family could possibly eat in a month, and trade most of it off for other stuff. I hate people who use the welfare system as a career.”

And, then, there was the thankful comment: “Yeah son 1st of da month getting dat government check and Gettin blazed. You da man Obama!! Keep em coming son.”

Taxpayers are being bilked, and the cheats are thanking us.

While there are controls on how welfare recipients can spend food stamp funds, the federal government places no controls on how TANF and ASPIRE benefits — meant to help needy families and to help people get and keep jobs — can be spent. Those benefits can be used to buy beer, if the recipient so chooses, or can be turned into cold cash at the ATM and used to buy drugs and other vices.

There is a bill now before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee intended to curb misuse. The bill would, according to U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ spokesman Kevin Kelley, require “states to which a state family assistance grant is made to maintain policies and practices necessary to prevent the use of state TANF assistance in any transaction in a liquor store, casino or gambling establishment or strip club.”

Say, what?

That’s not already law? It has taken until now for government to recognize that welfare funds should not be used to buy liquor, to spend at the craps table or to take in a strip show?

That’s beyond astonishing.

And, for too many people, it’s become a way of life to cash in on the backs of taxpayers for whom the 1st of tha month is just another work day, not a payday.

In Maine, welfare cheats are not slinking around in the shadows. They’re brazen and, thanks to what appears to be a new attitude of local investigation and state prosecution, they’re getting caught.

Last year, prosecutors in the Attorney General’s Office earned 10 convictions for welfare fraud, a 25 percent increase from the previous year. Maine juries indicted a dozen defendants for welfare fraud, double the number in 2010. This year, eight defendants have already been indicted in just the Lewiston area, which is tremendous progress.

The reality is, though, that while prosecutors are building cases against a dozen people, thousands more may be cheating the system. Yes, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, there are thousands of fraud reports every year. Recipients are lying on welfare applications and selling and trading benefits, adapting age-old schemes for the electronic age.

In Norway, Dawn Solomon created multiple social service agencies to treat clients that didn’t exist, stealing $4 million from the state’s MaineCare program in fake “fees.”

In Lewiston, Kathleen Schidzig lied for more than three years about raising her children alone and cashed welfare checks she didn’t deserve.

Both women were convicted of welfare fraud last year and are now in jail.

And, for that, we thank Attorney General William Schneider. He and his staff have made fraud investigations and prosecution a priority. It’s an enthusiasm for guarding public funds that seems, according to Schneider, to have been lacking in the past.

“Lacking” is too kind.

It makes a person wonder how anyone at DHHS could ever have stamped approval on benefit applications for a woman who claimed to be pregnant for 40 consecutive months. How much effort could it have taken to confront this cheat, cut off her benefits and turn the case over to prosecutors?

Unless we all make a greater effort, like telling police and prosecutors about the stealing, thieving and scheming when we see it, we are enabling welfare cheats to pick our pockets.

And they’re laughing all the way to the bank.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.

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