Sandy Butler, University of Maine and Luisa Deprez, University of Southern Maine
Originally published in the Bangor Daily News on May 2, 1014
Editor’s Note: In this monthly series, the authors introduce you to people who are apt to be your neighbors, are struggling to make ends meet and have been affected by specific state policies. To share your story, write to Sandy.Butler@umit.maine.edu or call 581-2382.
There has been much discussion recently about fraud among Maine residents receiving government assistance. The LePage administration claims fraud is rampant, yet Maine’s attorney general notes that she has prosecuted only 37 Department of Health and Human Services cases in the last three years. Advocates for the poor also disagree, noting that claims of fraud are ill defined and greatly overblown.
While no one condones fraud, and DHHS has a responsibility to enforce the law, the recent political rhetoric implies people who receive public benefits are latent criminals, something University of Connecticut legal scholar Kaaryn Gustafson labels “the criminalization of poverty.” The sensationalized rhetoric distracts us from the real problem — poverty — and the solutions needed to help people get out of poverty. This means people seeking assistance not only pay the price of poverty but bear the burden of prejudice and discrimination as well.
For example, eight states that have tracked use of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits in prohibited locations, such as liquor stores or gaming establishments, have found well below 1 percent of transactions have taken place in such locations; in fact, the incidence is closer to 0.01 percent.
In Maine, the level of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program fraud recorded in 2012 — the most recent data available — was 0.38 percent, a rate lower than the national rate of 0.49 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Nonetheless, the LePage administration has prioritized pursuing fraud in “welfare” programs and says his administration is “ taking control” of fraud and abuse. Liz Schott, senior fellow of Family Income Support at the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says this is not surprising given media attention on the topic and a federal focus on fighting fraud.
According to John Martins, director of public and employee communications at Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services, the department increased the number of investigators in the Fraud Investigation Unit by eight last year, as authorized by legislation passed in 2012. DHHS has improved both its hotline and website, which allow Maine residents to report others for suspected fraud, Martins said.
Since Gov. Paul LePage has taken office, there has been a 65 percent increase in reports of intentional program violations, according to Martins. But the rate of actual convictions has decreased considerably — from eight out of 10 (80 percent) in 2010 to 12 out of 66 (18 percent) in 2013. Martins said that the rate of false accusations is not systematically collected.
It makes sense that a zealous approach to fraud would lead to families being falsely accused. It happened to one family in northern Maine.
Carla and her daughter Angela have been helping Carla’s son Tim, who suffers from severe depression and anxiety. (These are not their real names.) Tim has custody of his two sons and recently returned to Maine with his children from another state where he did not have success finding employment.
Tim’s sister Angela is a single mother of four who works full time as a nurse. She offered Tim and his sons a place to live until he could establish himself.
Since his late teens, when his father committed suicide, Tim has coped with serious mental health problems. He did not want to be interviewed.
“He’s never been the same since his dad died,” Carla stated. “We’ve battled everything you can imagine, just to bring him back. He is not well.”
Carla said Tim rarely leaves Angela’s house.
“I can’t get him to a doctor’s appointment,” Carla said. “… I can’t get him to family functions. He just hides out.”
The financial burden of supporting a second family became too much for Angela. Angela took Tim to the DHHS office near their home to apply for benefits.
Tim signed paperwork allowing his sister to use his electronic benefit transfer card on his behalf as he does not own a car and his illness makes it difficult for him to leave the house to shop for his own food. This kind of arrangement is lawful under state and federal law, and Angela and two of her children used the EBT card to buy groceries for Tim and his sons.
She soon was contacted by a DHHS fraud investigator and accused of illegally using someone else’s card, something the agency knew through surveillance cameras in a grocery store. The family’s legal aid attorney, Jack Comart of Maine Equal Justice Partners, said that Tim received a letter from DHHS, dated Jan. 8, 2014, indicating that he was under investigation due to unauthorized use of his EBT card by three people.
Angela said that Tim signed a form they were given at the DHHS office authorizing her to buy his groceries.
“They said it was fine at the time,” Angela said, but later the investigator insisted that using someone else’s card is considered fraud.
Angela wasn’t the only member of the family who experienced problems getting benefits for Tim. Earlier, Carla had tried to apply for SNAP benefits and MaineCare for Tim through the mail. Carla has power of attorney for her son and verified with the attorney general’s office that she could apply for SNAP on his behalf.
Carla included a cover letter, dated Dec. 16, 2013, explaining that she had power of attorney for her son, and enclosed a copy of the court papers.
“Nobody ever called me,” she said. Instead she was contacted and accused of acting inappropriately because she had not written “power of attorney” in front of her signature.
Martins, the DHHS spokesman, said the agency does not publicly discuss individual client cases.
“We were above board with everything we were doing. And then they said I had committed fraud, and they are threatening my daughter and threatening my son,” Carla said. “Finally I said, ‘Forget this.’”
Carla decided to take time off from work to go to DHHS personally with copies of her letters.
Ultimately, the family managed to straighten out its problems with DHHS. Angela was told Tim’s SNAP benefits would be restored. She could continue to use his EBT card to buy him groceries, and he would receive MaineCare and TANF retroactively from the first application in November.
Carla said she was not so much frightened as angry. To her, it felt like a witch hunt and a disproportionate use of resources.
“I’m paying salaries for workers to go out and persecute people unjustly. That’s crazy. They should be there to help people. There are a lot more people who genuinely need help than are committing fraud in this state. Yet a lot of time and resources are going into searching for fraud where it just doesn’t exist.”
Sandy Butler is professor of social work and is the graduate program coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. Luisa Deprez is professor and department chair of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. They are members of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.