How fair is Welfare?
Researcher tallies the cost of cracking down on welfare fraud
The state’s Department of Social and Health Services treats clients like suspects, and is quick to seek punishment for even small transgressions, according to new research at the University of Washington.
Rebecca Castner examined 13 welfare fraud cases for her dissertation on the criminalization of poor women.
Castner, who recently completed her doctorate in women’s studies, found that DSHS scrutinized clients, subjecting them to background checks and investigations more common in criminal law enforcement. In many of the cases surveyed by Castner, clients were prosecuted for failing to report any extra income.
For example, a DSHS client that Castner calls “Bandy,” was convicted of first-degree theft for wage fraud, a felony. She was given 30 days jail time and ordered to pay $8,612. The 30 days was converted to 240 hours of community service.
“It is not much of a stretch to envision the pipeline between welfare and prison,” Castner said.
Castner collected 103 welfare fraud cases from the King County Prosecuting Attorney. The 13 cases she examined were prosecuted between 2000 and 2005.
Castner’s sample is small, and first-degree theft convictions are rare among welfare fraud cases. The King County Prosecutor’s Office convicted two people of first-degree theft involving welfare fraud in 2011.
The number of cases DSHS sends to prosecutors is on the decline. Since 2005, DSHS has forwarded 45 welfare fraud cases to the King County prosecuting attorney’s office, said Steve Lowe, senior director of the DSHS Office of Fraud and Accountability.
The King County Prosecutor’s Office is too busy to take on low-profile cases, he said. The most recent one Lowe sent to King County allegedly defrauded $66,000.
“We go after the folks who are stealing the most money,” Lowe said.
But Castner’s study looks at more than convictions. She also describes the process required to receive welfare, comparing data collection at DSHS to a criminal investigation.
Women receiving welfare at the time filled out 22 pages of forms and underwent probing interviews. They provided documentation of divorce, child support payments and any other income they received.
Caseworkers collected information from Bandy and then called schools, landlords and the employers of her teenage sons, Castner said.
“The caseworker was acting more like a parole officer,” Castner said. “This creates an atmosphere of suspicion and divisiveness.”
Castner pointed to language in DSHS paperwork that equates clients to criminals early on, describing clients as evasive, elusive and suspect.
Castner said DSHS collects the data because if a woman is later charged, the prosecution will have evidence necessary to prove the case.
By the time a welfare fraud case is resolved, dozens of lawyers and staff members have dedicated thousands of hours to the investigation, Castner said. One case she examined involved 183 people and 35 subpoenas. Of those 35, 20 were DSHS staffers.
The agency’s efforts are largely futile, Castner said.
Four years after Bandy was fined $8,612, she had paid off just $50 and had not worked off any of the community service hours.
Lowe was skeptical of many of Castner’s conclusions. He said eligibility documents have been shortened and streamlined. Today, the paperwork clients must fill out is only three or four pages long.
DSHS collects data necessary to determine eligibility and the payment amount. It’s not unlike filing for a bank loan, he said.
But others say Castner is on to something. The study shows that the welfare system is designed to fail, said Helen Gilbert, a local organizer for Radical Women, a socialist feminist group. Gilbert invited Castner to speak to her group and said it confirms what she and others have long believed.
“There’s just no way that a majority of people can survive on that system, take care of their families and move ahead,” Gilbert said.
Castner believes DSHS clients are set up to fail. People who were prosecuted in the cases she studied were not getting enough help from DSHS. During the time of the study, a single mother and child could collect $440 in cash assistance and $180 in food stamps, a total of $620 a month.
In one of the cases, a woman with four children received $640 in cash assistance. After rent and utilities, she had $45 left over for toilet paper, soap and school supplies. She also owed $6,000 for student loans.
“To think that welfare assistance is the safety net is sobering,” Castner said.
Comparing a Criminal Investigation to a Welfare Application is ludicrous! Welfare is an INCOME based program! All eligibility requirements are initially met with income. Each program has different income rules, if you don
Aaron Burkhalter, you should be ashamed of yourself. This is what’s wrong with our state, people throw money at the problem instead of solving them. Ready, fire, aim.
First of all, the study was conducted 7 years ago and focused on only 13 cases? How is this relevant or an accurate reflection of today’s facts?
Since when should theives go unpunished? Is that the work you want to live in?
The sense of entitlement of these clients is astonishing. As if collecting welfare was their god-given right. Tax payers are the employer and we have questions. You don’t like it, stop asking for a hand out.
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