Poor people are probably messed-up losers who made terrible life choices. Poverty might make life more difficult, sure, but people in poverty surely did something to get themselves there. If they stay poor, they haven’t learned how to make good choices. If they can’t be responsible with their own money, anyone who helps them certainly has the right to make sure they aren’t continuing to make stupid choices.
We all believe some version of what I have just described, and investigating “welfare fraud” by individuals comes from those beliefs.
Of course Gov. Paul LePage wants to ferret out welfare cheats. FOX News fans will also have no trouble with the mindset that people receiving social services assistance from the government should be required to really deserve it, believing most people don’t.
But even Democrats, who are supposed to be champions of the poor, won’t back down from the notion that seeking out “welfare fraud” — when individuals find ways to use government social services assistance in unintended and possibly inappropriate ways — is a worthwhile effort. Despite recognizing that the results in the search for welfare fraud among individuals are unimpressive, even progressive politicians still claim such investigations have merit.
Maine Attorney General Janet Mills was on the right track when she said, “There is a great deal of talk this election year about welfare fraud. I hope that we put this issue in perspective, and make sure we apply the rule of law fairly and uniformly, that we go after the big fish as well as the small, and that we not elevate one over the other.”
But we should elevate one (the big fish) over the other (the small fish). We need to drop individual welfare fraud investigations off the radar entirely, and not only because it’s expensive and nearly fruitless. Investigating individual welfare fraud systematizes the misguided belief that poor people deserve punishment, and it keeps people poor.
In my first column, I talked about the humiliation of applying for social services assistance from the government. As someone who is “newly poor,” I now see that most of us view the poor as deserving of bad treatment. Even those of us with love in our hearts, when we look inside deeply, think it’s OK for the government to expect individuals to prove they aren’t trying to rip off the taxpayers. The poor are assumed guilty from the start.
The search for individuals defrauding the government by misusing social services benefits doesn’t have to bring in many people or find much money to be successful. The search itself is the tool meant to crush the poor.
Receiving food stamps means being constantly on guard, never knowing when an administrative error might require hours on the phone or a visit to the Department of Health and Human Services; noticing an error in my paperwork and being chastised as if I was trying to pull a fast one; and receiving multiple notices with polar opposite information about the status of my case. All of these are examples of the time-consuming process of receiving social services assistance from the government. This doesn’t even include “investigations” of the possibility of “fraud.”
Increasing “fraud prevention” adds to the already existing administrative snowball effect that keeps people poor. Adding more paperwork and reporting, more trips to DHHS, more unexpected home visits and more complicated phone calls all require exponentially more time than most people desperate enough for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or MaineCare can afford.
The poor are treated as if we are bad. We are expected to prove our worth. We are expected to prove that accusations of fraud are unmerited. Then there’s more paperwork, more time, more confusion, more negative judgments, and all of it leads to less time and emotional space to successfully break out of poverty.
When proving I’m not trying to bilk the system is a part-time job, when will I have time to find a job to pay my bills without government assistance?
Politically supporting and funding “fraud investigations” on individuals receiving SNAP, TANF or MaineCare costs hundreds of thousands of dollars while only recouping a fraction of what is spent. More than that, fraud prevention and detection for individuals who receive assistance institutionalizes the wrongheaded notion that poor people have done something wrong and deserve punishment for their implicit sins.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.