By Lisa Hagen
BOSTON -- The House is gearing up to debate its version of a bill to overhaul the welfare system on Wednesday, but some area legislators have conflicting ideas about how to prevent welfare fraud and move those dependent on benefits into the work force.
Under the House bill, recipients who do not have a Social Security number would be required to provide one within 90 days of applying for benefits with the state's Department of Transitional Assistance.
According to Matthew Kitsos, DTA spokesman, the local Lowell office has 17,901 cases. The DTA serves one in seven residents statewide, he said, including about 890,000 who receive SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, and approximately 70,000 cash-assistance clients.
But Rep. Jim Lyons, R-Andover, who filed five amendments, wants applicants to provide a number at the time of application.
"These are critical components if we're serious about tightening the system," Lyons said. "If we're spending the taxpayers' money, we should at least make it a level playing field on the other side."
Lyons' other amendments would require information so the state can verify an applicant is from Massachusetts and the welfare department to file a report of the number of people exempt from photo identification on EBT cards and reasons for that exemption.
"We've made some steps, but this program is rife with abuse and it is pretty straightforward that the rules and regulations be implemented at inception," he said.
But Rep. Kevin Murphy, D-Lowell, said Lyon's amendment, which has been supported by Republican colleagues, has been debated at least a dozen times this session. Murphy believes that 90 days is a "reasonable" amount of time to get that number.
"Unfortunately, there are problems at the federal government with issuing Social Security numbers in a timely fashion, so we need to remain cognizant of that," Murphy said.
The House bill would cut benefits to those whose mail is undeliverable. Murphy said this is a problem that needs to be looked into further.
Back in June, the Senate passed its own version of the bill that would require EBT cards to have photo ID. Applicants would have to document their job search before receiving benefits.
Area senators are divided over whether either bill will address the growing concerns about the current welfare system.
Sen. James Eldridge, D-Acton, one of two senators to vote against the bill, said he thinks there is an overreaction to the number of welfare-fraud cases. He said he is worried the new bill would hurt low-income families, specifically single mothers and people with disabilities.
"If the Legislature is really going to be serious in helping people get off welfare, we need to get back to investing in employment training and day-care vouchers and in general support our low-income families," said Eldridge.
But Sen. Eileen Donoghue, D-Lowell, said the Senate's bill aims to get people off of welfare and into a job. The current law gives people 60 days to start looking. The new bill requires applicants to look before they can start receiving cash assistance, she said.
If they can demonstrate they couldn't find work, she said, the bill will give the DTA the chance to put applicants in a job-diversion program first before providing the benefits.
"Nobody begrudges people who are down and out and on assistance and who are on the road to be self-sustaining," she said. "Everyone has experienced frustration and anger with these cases of fraud and abuse, and I think the Senate bill tried to address it in a thoughtful way."
Donoghue said the bill also calls for increased penalties for store owners who neglect to check photos on EBT cards and provides funds for additional investigators in the DTA's understaffed fraud unit.
If the House passes its bill, differences with the Senate legislation would likely be worked out in a conference committee. Although unsure of the time frame, Sen. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, believes both chambers can work out a deal before the Legislature recesses later this month.
"The main thing is that the bill passed cracks down on fraud, but also focuses on a principled remedy for folks needing it and helping find employment," Tarr said. "I'm cautiously optimistic that it will be passed before we recess around Thanksgiving, but by the very latest in January."