Who’s really cheating the welfare system?

Ethan: So, it looks like the LePage administration has spent $700,000 this year to find a whopping $209,000 in welfare fraud. If this is what you Republicans call “sound fiscal policy,” no wonder they threw you out of the majority last year.

Phil: So using your logic we shouldn’t be spending hundreds of millions on law enforcement because so few people commit crimes?

Ethan: Well, I am happy to debate the wasted money spent on our criminal justice system. But in this instance, you Republicans have claimed that we are losing millions to fraud and abuse. Well, in total, we have now spent $2.1 million over three years and discovered less than half a million from only 38 people! Oops.

Phil: I suspect these are the start-up costs of creating an effective fraud unit. Now that it’s in place, future cases will cost less to resolve.

Ethan: No sunset provision on that expenditure. My sense is they want to lose (I mean spend) even more money on this fruitless project.

Phil: No sunset provisions on a government program? What a surprise. But you have cleverly diverted the issue away from the culture that needs to change. People giving their earnings to help people who are scamming us, thereby denying benefits to those among us who most need our help, must be stamped out.

Ethan: But that culture doesn’t exist. Only 15 people a year have been found to cheat the system annually, out of 350,000! I don’t think my calculator has enough zeros to come up with that percentage. Most private enterprise would kill for that level of honesty among their customers, and they certainly wouldn’t spend four times what they were recovering.

Phil: Well, it’s clear you see no abuse worth stopping, would shut the unit down and demand the governor apologize for creating it in the first place. Is that about right?

Ethan: No, I am actually a big believer in stopping those who cheat the government. I would just focus those resources on the areas where we see real loss: tax breaks that don’t create jobs, contractors that overcharge, fee-for-service providers that claim services that never occurred. Instead we perpetuate the false myth that poor people are bilking the system.

Phil: I think you’ll find there are many systems in place to address these abuses. And either people are abiding by the law, or people aren’t doing their jobs, because we just aren’t reading about abuses in the areas of which you speak.

Ethan: Are you kidding? We have report after report showing that corporate welfare doesn’t create the jobs that businesses claim. I didn’t see Republicans adding $700,000 and eight welfare fraud workers to uncover this abuse. They swept it under the rug.

Phil: How about we eliminate all welfare and just have a simple flat tax? To me the real crime is that we have a welfare system that robs people of their best potential by trapping them in a system that is nearly impossible to climb out of.

Ethan: Do you know how long the average person on welfare in Maine has been there? Five years? 10 years? 20? Nope. Nope. Nope. Eighteen months! That hardly seems like the lifetime trap of which you speak.

Phil: So the generational welfare claim is a lie?

Ethan: Generational poverty is real. Unfortunately, while there is no limit on how long you can be poor, there is a limit on how much the government will help.

Phil: There are too many people who know no other option but government assistance?

Ethan: Are there “too many” who need assistance to survive? Sure. But that’s because of the economic divide. I would love it if there were higher paying jobs available so people could support their families, and education was adequate to meet the skills gap. But I don’t blame $7 a day in food stamps for creating dependency. You try feeding your family on that amount of money.

Phil: The facts show Maine is stuck with a 12 percent poverty rate and has been for years. Clearly the system we have is not succeeding.

Ethan: And it was double that before the war on poverty began (23.6 percent). If we didn’t have these programs in place, our poverty rate would be much higher.

Phil: One would think that after more than 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson declared the war on poverty that we would declare victory and close down the programs except for the disabled and the elderly. Instead we should declare that poverty has won and that we must try something different — like believing in the human spirit and not government programs.

Ethan: Unfortunately, forcing people off assistance creates homelessness, not employment. Look, I am with you in terms of fraud. I don’t like it anywhere. And as a guy who believes in the importance of government’s role in creating equal opportunity, I want government to be as efficient as possible. I want it to run as well as I run my business and you run yours. But that means we need to focus on the real problems, and welfare fraud just isn’t it.

Phil: I’ll tell you what. If after five years this program isn’t finding substantially more fraud, I will join you in calling the program a waste of money. But until then, let them do their work.

Ethan: Fine. But if it isn’t finding more fraud, I want you to join me in calling for an equal enhancement of funds to find tax cheats and corporate welfare frauds who claim they create jobs but never do.

Phil: Deal.