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Mass. Senate Leaders Unveil Welfare Reform Plan

BOSTON — One of the state’s most powerful lawmakers on Monday unveiled a comprehensive welfare reform plan meant to address controversies over welfare fraud.

Senate President Therese Murray, a Democrat, says the $40 million proposal will reduce waste and abuse, while making it easier for beneficiaries to get work and get off the rolls.

Murray was an architect of Massachusetts’ last major welfare overhaul, in 1995. Since then, she says, the state has routinely waived some safeguards against abuse.

“The system has been stagnant for a long time,” Murray said, “and we want to shake up the system and give people some hope, too.”

As part of Murray’s plan, able-bodied welfare applicants would have to prove they’d searched for work before showing up at the welfare office. Once accepted, they’d receive training and guidance and, if that fails to produce a job, full-time work would be required through a program run by the Commonwealth Corporation, a nonprofit that has experience matching low-income workers with employers.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Stephen Brewer says if an applicant lies about a job search, perjury charges could result.

“There’s meaningfulness and honesty about this and you can see that it is cut across a wide swath,” he said, “and I believe progressives and conservatives can support this — not just being punitive, but being progressive.”

The measure does seem calibrated to appeal across political ideologies. For conservatives, there’s the institution of photo IDs on welfare benefit cards, penalties for stores that do not check them and tighter oversight of Social Security numbers. There’s funding for efficiency measures, such as moving the paper-bound Department of Transitional Assistance into the digital age.

“I do see an opportunity we’ve been waiting a long time for,” said Bruce Tarr, the Senate’s Republican leader. “And it tries to strike a balance between getting people back to work who are on welfare and making sure there is no fraud and abuse in the system.”

The bill includes money for more caseworkers and health care subsidies for employers. And there are new policies that could make life easier for beneficiaries once they find a job: The cost of a car used for work would not be counted as an asset that could end a recipient’s eligibility; the same goes for money socked away for rent deposits. And the asset exception is extended for part-time income earned by teens who stay in school full time.

Gov. Deval Patrick says from his initial review of the bill “the bones look pretty good.”

“It emphasizes that welfare is or ought to be a way forward, not a way of life,” he said.

Patrick stops short of endorsing one component his administration has resisted: the photo ID cards.

The Senate is scheduled to vote on the proposal on Thursday.

This post was updated with the All Things Considered feature version.

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