BANGOR, Maine — City officials said Thursday there is no need for a crackdown on people bilking the welfare system because Bangor has been keeping on top of the issue.
“We take seriously the abuse of [general assistance],” City Manager Cathy Conlow said. “We see to it that those who are caught defrauding the system see consequences.”
In 2012, Bangor administered general assistance to 1,608 qualifying individuals, who received about $2.8 million, mostly in housing assistance. That year, the city expelled 192 of those people for 120 days after finding they violated program rules, according to Shawn Yardley, Bangor’s director of health and community services. Officials said about five of those people went on to face criminal charges.
On Tuesday, Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald announced an enforcement effort that tossed 84 of the city’s 225 welfare recipients from the system, including 50 for alleged fraud. The city’s police chief said 12 of those people could face charges.
Lewiston promises more rounds of sanctions in the future.
In the past year, Portland uncovered 103 instances of fraud among its 2,171 individual recipients, according to the Portland Press Herald. Officials with Portland’s Department of Health and Human Services did not return messages seeking comment Thursday.
General assistance is an emergency aid program administered by municipalities, funded in part by the state, that is being used by an increasing number of people struggling with finances or waiting to receive federal subsidies. About 80 percent of people who apply for the program in Bangor are approved to receive benefits, according to Yardley.
Bangor is the state’s second-largest distributor of general assistance funds, behind Portland and ahead of Lewiston.
Bangor drops people from the payroll on a weekly basis after finding they’re no longer eligible for assistance or that they’ve lied to the city about aspects of their lives or finances that determine eligibility, according to Yardley.
There are a number of violations that can lead to an ejection from the system. Yardley said some common reasons for recipients’ suspension from the program include:
• Failing to perform their required “workfare.” Those who apply for general assistance who are physically able may be assigned work for the city, a nonprofit organization or another group. Yardley said recipients in Bangor who participateed in workfare programs in 2012 contributed an estimated $115,000 worth of work.
• Failing to report additional people living in their residence.
• Failing to reveal sources of income or expenses.
• Lying on paperwork.
• Lying about looking for work by claiming they are applying for jobs when they aren’t. Caseworkers following up with employers can determine whether the recipient ever actually applied.
Most of these violations don’t rise to the level of a criminal complaint because they are usually uncovered quickly and are met with a 120-day sanction, Yardley said.
“We may have caught them at the time of application before they received benefits for that month,” Yardley said.
Knowingly hiding income could lead to charges. For example, Yardley said, if a recipient deals drugs to make extra money while on welfare, it could result in a fraud charge, along with drug charges.
“If we believe that there is a criminal component, we send it to Bangor [Police Department],” Yardley said.
General assistance eligibility is determined on a month-by-month basis, with recipients required to meet with caseworkers to provide updates on their income and spending. During those meetings, general assistance officials are encouraged to look for signs of unreported expenses and income, such as new phones or expensive clothing.
“The burden is on the individual to prove they’re eligible,” Yardley said.
Yardley said the majority of the 1,600 people who received general assistance in 2012 were on the program for less than five months because their financial situation improved, they were accepted for disability benefits, they no longer qualified or they ended up in jail.
“Our philosophy is that we need to run an efficient, effective and accountable program to ensure that we’re spending the taxpayers’ dollars well,” Yardley said, adding that those efforts ensure as much help as possible is available for individuals and families that desperately need it.