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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Welfare Fraud's Return?

Cities, Cities, Culture, Economics New York City, Poverty & Welfare

Let’s say you’re a New Yorker who’s collected welfare for the last 10 years, and the five-year federal time limit, enacted by Congress in 1996, just ran out on your case.

No problem! The city and state have a virtually identical welfare program for you that you can roll into for life.

Here’s the question: Should you be required to reconfirm your welfare eligibility before entering the local program? The poverty industry says: No way!

For months, the advocates have conducted a fierce campaign against the Giuliani administration’s plan to recertify recipients who seek to move from the federal to the state- and city-subsidized welfare rolls.

This issue - whether to re-establish welfare eligibility for people entering the local “Safety Net” program - will be the first major welfare battle facing Mayor Bloomberg and his new Human Resources commissioner, Verna Eggleston.

How they resolve it will show whether they support the principles of the Giuliani welfare revolution, or whether they will become the puppets of dependency promoters.

One of the most important discoveries of the Giuliani era was the need for rigorous and ongoing tests of welfare eligibility. In the first few years of Mayor Giuliani’s tenure, the caseload dropped dramatically merely because the city started rigorously scanning fingerprints, checking for double-dipping and verifying an applicant’s claims about resources.

Simply asking an applicant to come into a welfare office for an appointment produced a significant drop-off in applications, because (1) some people can’t be bothered, and (2) others are working off the books and a welfare appointment conflicts with their job.

The administration also learned that eligibility verification cannot be a one-shot deal. Even when a recipient is not deliberately ripping off the government, her circumstances can change, rendering her no longer eligible for public assistance.

Somehow, those changes never get reported unless the government periodically asks for the information. In the year 2000 alone, the administration found 40,000 cases on its rolls that should not have been there, whether the product of conscious fraud or semi-unconscious inadvertence.

Human Resources Administration workers have enthusiastically embraced the integrity component of the city’s assistance programs.

Last July, I asked Chidinma Mahamah, a small African bombshell who manages a West Side fraud unit, whether she worried that the next mayor would undo the Giuliani eligibility verification reforms. “I hope not!” she replied forcefully. “That would be going backwards, because this agency has really done wonders.”

Mahamah points out that when the administration started asking welfare recipients to register their state-subsidized baby sitters, a large number said: “Oh, never mind, you can keep the money.”

In fact, those recipients had been collecting payments for baby sitters they’d stopped using years ago, if they had ever had them.

“Giuliani decided to check everyone,” noted Mahamah admiringly - and every check-point yields a significant harvest of fraud and ineligibility.

This on-the-ground realism is sorely lacking among the poverticians and their mouthpiece, The New York Times.

In their view, establishing eligibility for welfare is like taking the sacrament: You do it once and you’re finished for life. But the caseload changes constantly; to protect taxpayer dollars, the city has a duty to make sure that everyone receiving welfare still deserves to do so.

The advocates, however, argue that it would be mean-spirited to ask people facing the five-year federal time limit to prove their qualifications for the Safety Net program. This is absurd.

Anyone seeking a bank loan has to re-establish his credit-worthiness, no matter if he has several loans outstanding. Welfare applicants will never be asked to repay the taxpayer money they seek to receive; at the very least, they should show that they are entitled to the assistance.

Showing up for a few appointments is hardly onerous, when what you are asking in return is potentially a lifetime of government welfare payments.

Moreover, the Giuliani administration exempted from the recertification process recipients who are following the rules and working for their check; only those welfare-collectors who have persistently refused to work have to reapply for the Safety Net program. When they reapply, they are offered a city-subsidized job. If they refuse, they are off the rolls.

Undoubtedly, this final reckoning about work also offends the welfare establishment. How can it maintain the fiction that only a lack of jobs, rather than a dependency culture, keeps people on welfare, when recipients are seen turning down job offers?

Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Eggleston should not “go backwards,” in Chidinma Mahamah’s words, to a time when one in seven New Yorkers were on welfare, many illegitimately, and when the city made few efforts to ensure that its vast welfare budget was spent only on legitimate need.

The mayor and his commissioner should continue asking non-workers who want to stay on the dole beyond the federal time limit to prove their eligibility.

The new administration will have to wage many battles over Mayor Giuliani’s fraud controls, which the advocates fought unceasingly and will now try to roll back. Caving in to this first demand for come-and-get-it welfare will send a dangerous signal about the administration’s willingness to weaken welfare reform.

One more measure that Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Eggleston should take - and quickly - to preserve the success of welfare reform in New York City: They must develop a high degree of skepticism about the welfare gospel according to the advocates and The New York Times.