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Robin Vos Eupdate: Wisconsin's Welfare Fraud Culture Continues ~ March 19, 2010

Wisconsin's Welfare Fraud Culture Continues

Those of you who followed my eupdates during the last two budget debates have read about my frustrations in trying to stop welfare fraud only to be blocked by Democrats who continue to support the culture of fraud in Wisconsin.  While I can't stand any type of taxpayer fraud, I've been most involved recently in working to curb fraud in the Wisconsin Shares child care program. 

When I read a new report out this week, written by Mike Nichols for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, on the culture of food stamp (known as FoodShare) fraud in Wisconsin, I was once again outraged.  I am so tired of hearing about these fraud cases and I am really upset that nothing is being done about them in Wisconsin.

The report claims that Wisconsin has more than doubled it's FoodShare rolls since 2003.  It says that some of this is due to the bad economy, but also to looser eligibility rules - which I fought against in the last budget. In Wisconsin, 700,000 people now benefit from FoodShare.  This costs the taxpayers $800 million a year.

The  main point of the report is that Wisconsin has a culture of turning a blind eye to fraud - something I have been saying since I tried to get the state to deal with the Wisconsin Shares program in 2007.  According to Nichols, other states by far surpass us in their food stamp fraud investigations. In 2007, Minnesota and Michigan performed at least 85% more investigations. 

Prosecutions are dismal, as well.  In 2007, Wisconsin prosecuted 20 people.  Minnesota prosecuted over 1,000; Michigan 2,400.  Those interviewed in the article attribute this to a couple different things: depleting resources and something called "social worker mentality".

As Wisconsin's budgets have gotten tighter and tighter over the years, so have the county budgets.  Often, counties acknowledge the first things to go are their fraud investigation units. Programs like FoodShare and WisconsinShares are funded by state and federal money, and they have no incentive to be good stewards of those dollars when there are so many other programs to fund. At the same time, many counties, including Racine County, desperately want the resources to stop the fraud that they know is taking place, and if not for lacking state resources would be able to.

That's why I authored amendments that allocated extra money to the counties to put into their fraud investigation units.  They were voted down by Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee and then again in the full Assembly. They cited the fact that we just didn't have a couple million extra to root out fraud. 

Any sensible person can see this is penny-wise and pound-foolish.  The Wisconsin Shares program has been bilked of close to $20 million.  And while it's impossible for him to really know for sure, Nichols suggests that FoodShare fraud also could be (and most likely is) costing us a lot of tax dollars.  He recounts stories of people in jail giving their FoodShare cards to people on the outside to use, others selling them to store owners for cash, while others are some how trading them for drugs. 

So when Democrats on the Joint Finance Committee and in the full Assembly said we didn't have the resources to provide extra money for fraud prevention, I decided to come up with another solution.  I worked with County Executive Bill McReynolds and Human Services Director Debbie Jossart to come up with a formula that would allow counties to keep a certain amount of their fraud recovery dollars.  It would give workers and county administrators an incentive to really crack down on fraud.  In this way, the state could recover some money and so could the county - working together to stop the fraud culture. Sounds reasonable right? Wrong.  That was not accepted by Democrats, either. 

As I've mentioned before in my eupdates, I introduced a myriad of other amendments (that were rejected) to help tighten up the regulations in the child care program and help make it easier for counties to stop the fraudulent use of the child care program.  The majority of these ideas again came from Racine County.  McReynolds and Jossart know the programs inside and out and know where some of the state's lax regulations get in the way of stopping fraud at the county level.  Their expertise is extremely valuable, and it's why I've reached out to them again to come up with ideas on how to combat FoodShare fraud. 

The "social worker mentality" mentioned above suggests that by cracking down on fraud we are somehow picking on poor people.  But I think in this case, that argument is untenable given that a lot of fraud whistleblowers are public assistance recipients, themselves, angry that someone is scamming the system while they are following the rules.   

In any case, many Democrats in the Legislature, as well as the agencies that administer the program, and sometimes the county workers who implement it, suffer from social worker mentality.  They think rooting out fraud is somehow picking on poor people, and this is just dead wrong.  By allowing this to happen, by turning a blind eye on the wrongdoing, we are hurting the people that need these services the most. 

I will continue to fight against welfare fraud.  But if you haven't already, I encourage you to click on the link above and read the full investigative report.  It's worth it.  Then I encourage you to send it to all your friends.  Because I've learned in my fight against fraud that often it takes a loud cry of outrage from the public along with a lot of media coverage to actually end the cycle of complacency that has embedded itself in the Madison bureaucracy.

State Representative Robin Vos State Capitol - Room 321 East - Post Office Box 8953 - Madison, Wisconsin 53708 Phone: (608) 266-9171 - Toll Free: (888) 534-0063 - Fax (608) 282-3663 Email: Rep.Vos@legis.wisconsin.gov On the Internet: Representative Vos' Web Site