Budget brings welfare worries

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The last-minute budget-passing machinations that saw school vouchers and privatizing liquor stores placed on the back burner until fall, but included a bill requiring a referendum for school district tax increases above inflation, also included a separate bill giving the state Welfare department greater freedom to reduce costs that made it’s way into the $27.15 billion budget.

The bill, which allows Welfare Secretary Gary Alexander to make $250 million in spending cuts without legislative input or public comment, immediately caused a stir among Welfare activists and advocates for the poor and their political allies.

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GARY ALEXANDER

Agency spokesman Mike Race said lawmakers and stakeholders would still have input, but that addressing the state’s fiscal problems requires swift action, and the current system is too cumbersome to allow that.

Calling it unprecedented, House Appropriations Chairman Joe Markosek, D-Monroeville, said the bill gives Alexander “unfettered power” to trim spending, which could include raising co-pays and/or changing eligibility requirements.

Republican promoters of the bill like Rep. Martin Causer, R-Turtlepoint, said the changes are meant to address fraud and waste in the department. Among some of the bill’s requirements is one that subjects drug felons, applying for benefits or already receiving benefits, to random drug testing. Welfare, they said, should not subsidize drug abuse.

“Welfare spending skyrocketed 62 percent during the Rendell administration, due in large part to their unwillingness to take action despite significant evidence of waste, fraud and abuse in the system,” he said.

The state’s main cash assistance program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, can pay benefits for a total of up to five years. And though it is for “families,” it predominantly pays single mothers with dependent children.

Another program, General Assistance, can pay benefits to single adults, but the lifetime for benefits is just nine months. The idea is that those with permanent mental or physical disabilities that prevent them from working are eligible for Social Security benefits.

The Welfare Department also administers the Food Stamp, now called the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. Eligibility is dependent on income with the maximum for a family of four being around $35,000 for $668 in stamps.

But again, some or all of these requirements may be modified, said Adam MacGregor, spokesman for Just Harvest, Pittsburgh’s anti-hunger initiative. He said Alexander can do almost anything he wants.

“This idea of rampant ‘waste, fraud and abuse’ is based on a 2009 audit from Jack Wagner that said there was a 4 percent ‘error rate.’ That could mean anything,” he said. “We are very concerned, especially given Gary Alexander’s previous record.”

During the height of the recession, while running Rhode Island’s Department of Human Services, Alexander cut the maximum time limit a family could receive benefits from 60 months to 24 months.

Other areas likely to be targeted for reduction or change include:

•Transportation allowances for welfare-to-work;

•Special allowances designed to help transitioning recipients pay for job clothing, tools or training; and

•Requiring recipients to register in the county where they reside to eliminate “benefit shopping.”

“Most of the ‘fraud’ is based on anecdotal accounts. Alexander himself said he didn’t know how large or small the problem really is,” said MacGregor. “Like our director always says, the Republicans will just ‘go to the waste, fraud and abuse line item and scratch it out.’”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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