April 19, 2011

Reducing Obligations

Marc Comtois

No one likes to be though of as hard-hearted. But in an effort to find places to cut--to reduce our "obligations"--we simply need to take a closer look at our Human Services budget, which has $2.1 Billion (federal and state) in "assistance, grants and benefits" alone. Within that budget is the spending requested for the acute Department of Human Services, which has increased about 22% since 2009.

A review of the line items (PDF) shows that $864 million of Governor Chafee's 2012 DHS budget is comprised of money from Rhode Island taxpayers, an increase of $127.5 million over last year. (That's also with the $30.7 million in Veteran's Affairs money going off the DHS' books because the VA was made a new Department).

I suspect that advocates will explain that the increase in state funds is required to make up for the gap in Federal funding (nearly $111 million). This reduction in Federal funding correlates almost directly with a reduction in the Federal money spent on the Medical Benefits line item, where the loss of $111 million in Federal dollars is more than made up for with an increase of nearly $154 million in General Revenue expenditures.

This just points to the problem with becoming addicted and reliant upon the Federal government--or other "one time fixes"--to help smooth over budget gaps. The last Federal stimulus package just served as the latest drug of choice for the government addicts. Now it's going away. No matter what the "heart" wants, the wallet has to be able to afford it. And we can't (sorry, even the "Patriot Tax" doesn't get us there, folks).

Yet, to really get to the nut of the problem, we can't focus on the year-to-year gains or losses: it's time to revisit the basic formulation we use to qualify people for benefits. For instance, with regards to medical benefits, families who make 250% of the Federal Poverty Level can tap into RIte Share, Rhode Island's health care subsidization plan, for $1100 per year. That means taxpayers are subsidizing health care for a family of 4 with an income of $55,000 or a family of 5 with an income of $64,500.

I don't know if the figures are available to determine how many at the top-end are taking advantage of these programs. It can even be argued that this is a good use of our tax dollars: a helping hand for people who will work their way up and out of needing this assistance. I can buy that, but maybe we need to put a time limit on it. Regardless, can we afford to be so generous? I don't think so. But the problem may not be with offering a helping hand to people so close to not needing it.

I, like most Rhode Islanders, have empathy for those going through hard times. They're our family, our neighbors, our friends. We support a safety net. We can't afford to support a safety net "lifestyle." The poor economy brought many "newbies" into the safety net who have learned first-hand how it is abused by the lifers. For too long, Rhode Island, with it's generous benefit qualification "requirements", has taken a "no questions asked" approach (ie; "666" for a SS#) and served as a magnet and safe haven for the safety net careerists. Reform in the cash assistance program helped a little. But any savings have been eclipsed by expenditures in other, non-cash programs like, for instance, the aforementioned medical assistance. Ask doctors and nurses (or EMTs) how many people use 911 and the Emergency Room as a primary care physician, even now with all of the health care reform.

For the system seems to be meant to be gamed. We reward people for having more children (giving them child-care subsidies, for instance, that often go to family members operating a "daycare"), particularly out of wedlock, while working under the table to minimize their reportable income. We need to identify the abusers and other areas of fraud, waste and abuse (a la Ken Block). We need to tighten the qualification requirements and stop being taken advantage of by the safety net industry careerists. We need to help those who actually try to help themselves out of the safety net instead of those who see it as a hammock.

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"Ask doctors and nurses (or EMTs) how many people use 911 and the Emergency Room as a primary care physician, even now with all of the health care reform."

Ironically, that's exactly what you advocate when you suggest limiting programs like RIShare in a short-sighted attempt to save money by denying preventative care. God forbid we allow the poor folks to get used to a "lifestyle" of regular checkups and dental cleanings.

Saying you have "empathy for those going through hard times" is all well and good, but actions are what count.

Posted by: Russ at April 19, 2011 1:10 PM

Excellent piece on reform that has been needed for a long time.

True story: a friend who is an ER doc in one of RI's city hospitals had a 4 y.o boy come in with a broken arm. While he was tending to the boy he was chatting to keep him occupied and comfortable and asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. The boy didn't comprehend the question. When he gave him some examples: do you want to be a fireman, policeman, doctor? He answered "no". Well, what do you want to do? His answer? "Get a check". There was no concept in this child's mind that getting a check had anything to do with working.

That is what we have created. Generations of people who consider the public assistance checks they receive to be "paychecks". They have no desire or need to get out of the safety net, it is their lifestyle and they don't comprehend why it should be denied them. We have allowed these people to become helpless, and in doing so we continue to grow a massive public employee system.

Reform is necesary. So is educating these people how to work. That's why I think a work program is going to be needed - if you cut them off they are pathetically helpless. If you cut them off and make them work for wages, then you teach them to take care of themselves.

Posted by: riborn at April 19, 2011 1:15 PM

Russ, I'll ignore your typical, digressive sarcasm (is it possible for you to discuss without sarcasm right out of the box?) and agree that, yes, actions count. But it's important to qualify whose actions count. By your definition "actions that count" appear to be those that look suspiciously like taxpayers sending money to support those who don't take action for themselves. In perpetuity. RIBorn is correct that we need to educate people how to work and get off the system (RIWorks was a good step in this direction), but to act as if there aren't people who view it as a lifestyle is disingenuous. We can give them a chance, teach them to fish, lead them to water, but at some point we need to fish or cut bait (pick your metaphor).

Posted by: Marc at April 19, 2011 1:36 PM

I heard someone describe it as circumstances vs. choices. I have no problem supporting people hit by circumstances (like mental illness, serious physical disability or short-term unemployment). I do have a great deal of a problem supporting people who are in their situation by choice. I know someone who is 100% on public assistance but gets her hair colored frequently, nails are fake and professionally done, has a cell phone and smokes 1-2 packs a day. And yes, I help to pay for it.

Separate question, on the "666" SSN. Is it possible for the public to get a list of all these people and at least their DOB or something? Similar to the state workers' salaries being publicized, can we get any more real information on who these people are? Babies without an SSN yet? Yes, that's all good. Grandma who's been here from Ireland for 45 years without any documentation? Not so much.

Posted by: Patrick at April 19, 2011 1:54 PM

"...family of 4 with an income of $55,000 or a family of 5 with an income of $64,500"

$55K ain't what it used to be, I wouldn't dream of having kids if the -household- income was in that range, it would be fiscally untenable.

I have a feeling part of the problem is the chain the social services money takes before it gets put to use. There are armies of administrators, clerks, and caseworkers who basically help people navigate the system. They could probably be replaced by a few computer terminals/operators that delivered much more bang for the buck, increased 'customer satisfaction', and defended better against fraud.

Posted by: mangeek at April 19, 2011 3:02 PM

I don't see anything in my comment above that would be considered digressive. As for sarcasm, it's hard not to respond to this kind of mythology without some degree of scorn.

How would you respond if I posted that suburban white guys need to be educated to be more empathic? Need to be taught to understand what it's like to be part of a community? It's an incredibly condescending and paternalistic attitude.

Add to that the outright falsehoods like RI has a "'no questions asked' approach" to benefits evidenced by the use of dummy SSNs for newborns, and I say sarcasm is about as polite as it's going to get.

Posted by: Russ at April 19, 2011 3:11 PM

Rhode Island's idea of a safety net is a hammock!

Posted by: John at April 19, 2011 3:12 PM

So here's what I'd consider a fairly typical story during the Bush depression (oddly no mention of 55-inch TVs).

Guindon says her $449-a-month welfare benefit is her family’s only significant source of income while she finishes the Community Kitchen, a culinary job-training program run by the Rhode Island Community Food Bank that she hopes will provide her with new opportunities for stable employment.

But with a 2½-year-old daughter still in her care, Guindon says she’s concerned about what happens between now and when she can find a permanent job. “If I lose my benefits, I really don’t know how I’ll be able to support myself and my daughter,” she said...

Currently, recipients are limited to 24 months of assistance in a 60-month period and a maximum of 48 months lifetime on welfare. Hardship exemptions are granted for a six-month initial period and then are available for unlimited renewals in three-month increments.

So am I correct that the right is concerned that $5k a year might be spoiling that little girl?

Posted by: Russ at April 19, 2011 3:38 PM

Russ, is there any factual basis for your considering that to be a "fairly typical story" or does it merely fit your position?

Even if there is some number of "deserving" needy, there are two critically important questions:

1. How can we get the undeserving "needy" and the fraudster/abusers off the system?

2. Is government the most effective way to deliver support/rehabilitation services to the deserving needy?

Based on the poor service at a high cost model of other government services, there is a high hurdle to cross in order to believe the answer to the second question could be "Yes".

Posted by: BobN at April 19, 2011 3:57 PM

Russ, Call it the Bush depression or whatever name gets your rocks off. We can play anecdote games all day. The fact is that there are abusers and that RI spends too much on the cycle of poverty with middling to poor results. Obviously Guindon is in a tough spot (though her life choices, if I recall, seem mysterious given the reporting in this story--she's a mother of 3 with one child still in her care--where are the other 2?) but not everyone on these programs are as sympathetic. Nonetheless, your response is not unexpected: to even suggest there is waste, fraud and abuse is to raise advocate hackles. To suggest that, perhaps, we can't do all for everyone is to be called cruel and cold. But spending other people's money to help whomever asks for--or demands--it, sure makes some feel really good. Even morally superior.

Posted by: Marc at April 19, 2011 4:30 PM

The subject of the article speaks as though she is supporting herself and her kid(s). She is not, we are.

The $5000 spoils society. Every $5000 we give to those who would do nothing but take brings us all down a little more, while raising our taxes to support the Takers' offspring. The Takers are breeding and populating our state with kids who have no chance of becoming much of anything, with their only role models being Takers. The Takers "learn to work" because they must to continue taking. CCRI is full of Takers - taking up space, not paying attention, interfering with other people who are trying to educate themselves. The Takers know the criteria for hardship extensions by heart. That is what Takers have been taught - how to work the state system to avoid ever working, while going about breeding more Takers.

There has to be a cutoff. A Taker reaches it and needs to get off our tab completely. If the Taker can't support her kids, the State should take them away from her, terminate her parental rights, and tell all Takers they will never get another cent from the state, no matter how many times they give birth.

How many babies are the Takers entitled to have us support? Generations of Takers populating RI with more generations of Takers?

There are pretty clear distinctions between the Takers and those who are disabled, elderly, infirm. Our welfare system was built on the Christian belief that we help others. But not that we are forced to deny our own families to pay taxes to support those who would not work.

Most of the state workers at DHS could give you a list almost immediately of the Takers vs. the needy.

Posted by: riborn at April 19, 2011 7:27 PM

It's reasonable to wonder, I'd say, whether it is truly in Ms. Guindon's best long-term interest to have RI subsidizing her while she takes cooking classes. Is that an area of particular demand, in RI? Or was it something she thought she might like to do?

Sometimes matters of hardship are the economy's way of telling people something. Whatever else we ought to design into our welfare and support systems, placing recipients in a position in which they use up their allotted time studying subjects without a demonstrable demand would seem to be a bad way to go.

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 19, 2011 8:14 PM

Rhode Island is a welfare state.
-Social Welfare
-Occupational Welfare
-Corporate Welfare
In a welfare state the government touches the lives of everyone. Personal accountability is nessary all around.

Posted by: Ericka at April 19, 2011 10:06 PM


I as a computer programmer analyst and information systems security specialist will be the first person to tell you computerization of the process will not lower the associated costs and speed things up. You have fixed overhead plus keeping up with modernization, technology, security, operator training not to mention user training (not everyone on the street is computer literate).

A good example is RIDMV which has suffered from budget cuts and no computer and network upgrades plus Governor Carcieri’s tactics with the pensions caused a mass exodus of the computer programmers that created the RIDMV computer system and other department/division databases causing an extensive drain on the State of RI computer systems proprietary knowledgebase of how things operate from paper to computer database back to paper and who to see or call when there is a fault and operate the system manually. That original knowledgebase is now gone.

Governor Carcieri balanced the budget with mass retirements and pension reform but RI is now paying for it!

Posted by: Ken at April 20, 2011 1:13 AM

Yeah, mangeek, what Ken said. Plus mangeek, what the heck do you know about computer systems anyway, probably nothing, right?

Posted by: Patrick at April 20, 2011 8:47 AM


Sounds like an argument for:

1. Never reforming retirements by milestones; every reform is borne by every employee (or at least everyone who is still working).
2. Going to a defined contribution plan.
3. Less incentive for single-organization lifers hired en masse during times of expansion.

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 20, 2011 10:14 AM

"Russ, is there any factual basis for your considering that to be a 'fairly typical story' or does it merely fit your position?"

I live in the south side of Providence in a neighborhood with many families struggling to make ends meet. All of them work harder than most (frequently in more than one job) to provide a better life for their kids. Is that so hard to believe for you folks?

Posted by: Russ at April 20, 2011 11:05 AM

"Even if there is some number of 'deserving' needy..."

All children are deserving.

As for the rest, I don't disagree with the questions you raise. However I disagree that government programs are always high cost. And RIte Share that Marc is talking about is just a subsidy for purchasing private insurance.

Posted by: Russ at April 20, 2011 11:15 AM

Correct me if I'm wrong but didn't the state hire a vendor to implement the DMV database and create a new infrastructure to accommodate the new Cranston headquarters. I believe the bid also included training of DMV personnel. How does that fit into your theory?

Posted by: Max Diesel at April 20, 2011 11:41 AM
But spending other people's money to help whomever asks for--or demands--it, sure makes some feel really good. Even morally superior.

Mine, mine, mine! Nothing hard hearted about that. Would that you guys cared half as much about using other people's money to blow things up.

But let's remember, we're not talking about handouts to whomever asks, we're talking about money to provide healthcare and especially to provide preventative care (newsflash you already pay for emergency care). Helpling children in need is quite simply the right thing to do ("It is not charity but a right, not bounty but justice, that I am pleading for"). And believe it or not, I don't need to benchmark myself against the fringe-right to feel good about advocating for providing healthcare to children.

Posted by: Russ at April 20, 2011 12:17 PM

Russ's sarcasm doesn't count towards his argument. He assumes that all of the taxpayer dollars that the state spends is going toward necessary services for deserving children. If only that were true. And it if were, there remains the issue that government spends that money in an extremely inefficient way. Look at the 9-figure administrative budgets for the "human services" departments of the state government. It is very hard to believe that a private charitable organization could not deliver the same services at a fraction of the cost.

The fact remains that social safety net services are not legitimate functions of government under either the US or RI constitution.

Posted by: BobN at April 20, 2011 1:11 PM

Russ-"kudos"to you for being so ethical,moral,upright,etc.etc for living in a neigborhood where people struggle and work multiple jobs.
For you it's a sociology field trip,but I grew up in that.
Now I've lived in a homeowner's neighborhood for 27 years and no one here is like your f**kin' heroes,Chafee and Whitehouse.They worked for what they have and who the hell are you to advocate beating us over the head for more and more taxes to support non working people with $400 cell phones and $ 150 sneakers.I've seen it,pal-I don't live in Fantasyland.
Nice rides too.
I wore hand me downs and unfortunately all my cousins were tall,and i had to roll up everything because I had a tall younger cousin who was next in line.
Oh,and I hate to burst your narrowminded little bubble,but my neighborhood is very interracial,unlike your East Side limousine commie friends.

Posted by: joe bernstein at April 20, 2011 1:18 PM

Yes, Russ. I'm greedy and think kids should die of starvation and disease. You got me.

Posted by: Marc at April 20, 2011 4:10 PM

"We need to identify the abusers and other areas of fraud, waste and abuse "

#1, eliminating fraud, waste and abuse is a minimum starting point;

#2, any elected official not actively working to eliminate fraud, waste and abuse clearly believes that s/he benefits from it politically and is putting the public good a distant second to selfish personal gain.

Posted by: Monique at April 20, 2011 6:20 PM


I used the DMV analogy to mangeek as an example of technology does not always solve the problem unless you keep up with the modernization and continued maintenance of the system which also includes the appropriate computer specialist and programmers on staff.

Max Diesel,

I retired over 5 years ago but I return to visit at least once a year. You indicated the state hired a vendor to implement a new DMV database and create a new infrastructure to accommodate the new Cranston headquarters. I think what you are referring to is the new Rhode Island Operator Control located in Cranston across from the RI National Guard HQ. To my knowledge the DMV database is still at the state central computer center and operated by DOIT. I’ll give you a hint, it is cheaper for a computer programmer to leave Providence and drive to the computer center to download a monthly file than to try and download it across the existing networks. That is how out of date the system is and as each person retires along with that person goes parts of the knowledge base of how the system operates.

Posted by: Ken at April 20, 2011 6:43 PM

"technology does not always solve the problem... continued maintenance... computer specialist and programmers."

A fair portion of the people I know are either workers for the social safety net, or consumers of it. Trust me, there's an ARMY of people who's job is to help people navigate the system.

'Regular people' find it really hard to get enrolled in the safety net when they need it, and often miss out on benefits that would help them. At the same time, the army of workers who deliver the system requires massive amounts of money to support.

You could encode ALL of the state's welfare/heating assistance/social security/RIteCare/etc. eligibility, reporting, accounting, and enrollment onto a few servers. It would have an interface for 'users' to see what benefits they can get and sign up for them, and have an additional interface for people like my girlfriend (supportive housing director/caseworker) to keep client profiles for users who are too disabled to use the system themselves.

Are you really arguing that the current system works better than a statewide web-based one? My girlfriend spends a fair portion of her day finding out what services her clients are eligible for, filling out redundant paperwork, and giving her clients bus fare and directions so they can go to the various clerks in different state offices to sign up.

Hell, we could just farm it out to Intuit, they could make an interface like TurboTax to determine what programs you can get on, plus they have the infrastructure to tie-in with our accounting and check-cutting systems.

And yes, computer people are expensive. I work in technology, I know. Corporate America has been leveraging the kind of thing I'm talking about for twenty years, and productivity has gone up 280% in that time, while your method has tripled in cost and delivered more and more mediocre results over the same period.

As for the DMV... It's a typical case of resistance to change coupled with employment contracts that allow people to sit on a single skill set for forty years without learning new stuff. I've NEVER heard of a business closing its doors for one day a week for six months for 'training', have you?

Posted by: mangeek at April 20, 2011 7:03 PM
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