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Cracking down on welfare fraud: Is it hurting the innocent?



PITTSBURGH,None - Every year millions of your tax dollars go to support people who are struggling to make ends meet.   Most desperately need the welfare help, but some are cheating the system.

Target 11 Investigator Rick Earle spoke with lawmakers, people who rely on welfare and an organization that helps people on welfare. 

There’s no question that many people need the help provided by the welfare system, but there’s also no question that some people are taking advantage of the system. 

So, Earle wanted to know how you tackle the problem and weed out the cheaters without hurting the people who need the help.

“We are a proud nation, but sometimes proud people need help," said Mary McCarthy. McCarthy is a retired school teacher on a fixed income who gets by with the help of food stamps.  McCarthy feared initially that the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare’s new asset test that banned anyone with several thousand dollars in savings from getting food stamps would effectively eliminate her from the program she says is vital for her existence.  

“If we say we want people to be self sufficient and on their own but we deny them the right to save money.  I'm saving money for my demise.  To me that does not seem fair,” said McCarthy. 

The new regulation sparked outrage and days later the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare decided to increase the limit for senior citizens to $9,000.

The savings threshold for anyone under 60 is $5,500. 

State Representative David Reed of Indiana County has lead the fight to crack down on welfare fraud and abuse.  We asked him why re-implementing the asset test is important. 

“You don't want somebody sitting on $50,000, $100,000 or $1 million receiving food stamps,” said Reed, a Republican who has successfully pushed through legislation targeting fraud in the welfare system.  

Reed is behind a series of measures that the governor signed into law, including random drug-testing of recipients who have been convicted of a drug felony during the past five years. 

Another measure requires the use of a fraud detection program that would run welfare applicants’ information through an income eligibility verification system before providing benefits.  Another reform would prevent “benefit shopping,” where people apply for welfare benefits in a county other than the one in which they live in order to receive higher benefit payments. 

“If somebody is applying for benefits they don't deserve, then we have a responsibility, from a governmental perspective and a societal perspective, to take those benefits away and use the dollars in a better form to help other folks in need,” said Reed.

Target 11 obtained new information from the State Office of Inspector General that found 1,150 cases of welfare fraud across the state last year.  The fraud cost taxpayers more than $3 million.

Earle also spoke to Rochelle Jackson, who works for the non-profit advocacy group Just Harvest in Pittsburgh.   Jackson told Earle that she believes many of the suspected cases of fraud may stem from errors made by overworked caseworkers.

“I've not seen a significant number of cases that suggest that we have to implement new measures to deal with waste, fraud and abuse,” said Jackson.

And furthermore, Jackson contends that new restrictions like the asset test and random drug testing will only keep food of the table of those who need it the most.

“There is no system that we create that’s going to catch each and every person, and I’m not saying that everyone is perfect and everyone who receives the benefits does so justly, but that’s in any system, whether it’s politics, corporate America, any system.  You will have some error or fraud rate and this is no different.  So to implement new measures and to subject them to things that other folks aren’t subjected to doesn’t seem like it makes any sense to me.  In my opinion it's a mean-spirited attack on individuals who don't have the means and who are hurting already,” said Jackson.

DPW will begin using the asset test in May.  And, Reed says the random drug testing will begin soon in a county in central Pennsylvania and then move to the rest of the state later this year.