April 25, 2011

That Old Welfare Draw Question Poorly Answered, Again

Justin Katz

A weekend PolitiFact giving Colleen Conley "half true" for a statement regarding the generosity of Rhode Island's welfare system illustrates the flaw in the media enterprise's entire methodology:

Do welfare recipients really have it that good in Rhode Island? We decided to check.

The simple answer: When it comes to how folks commonly define welfare -- cash assistance to poor people -- they don’t.

The RIPEC report, released in 2010 using data from 2008, doesn't have a state-by-state comparison of cash payments.

Instead, it examines them by two different measures. And both show we’re far from the most generous in New England.

The real lesson, I'd say, is that folks making such statement's as Conley's have to add a parenthetical note to include other welfare programs than just cash assistance. It has long been a tactic of social service advocates (and therefore the mainstream media) to focus on cash payments as (in the ubiquitous phrases) "how folks commonly define welfare."

Personally, I've yet to see any evidence that most "folks" do not intend to include every variation of payment and service rendered to needy people when they say "welfare." Ask a person on the street, that is, whether child care subsidies are part of "welfare," and I'd wager you'll get a "yes."

More to my point, it misses what's relevant to investigate aggregate state spending in order to compare social services, as PolitiFact does. Conley said that Rhode Island leads New England in being "known for its generosity toward its welfare recipients." That calls for measurement from the perspective of those who receive services, not the government that processes the redistribution of money.

The problem, as Andrew noted a few years ago (here and here), is that such information is difficult to come by. To answer the question of whether Rhode Island is a "welfare magnet," one must know whether the state is perceived to offer benefits that can't be garnered elsewhere.

That shift emphasizes, first of all, that cash payments are not all that should be considered, and second of all, that such conclusions as PolitiFact's should be based on an analysis of actual program offerings. For example, it's been a number of years since I've had the opportunity to look deeply into this question, but it used to be the case that Rhode Island didn't count other states' cash payments when considering eligibility. That has changed, but I believe it remains unlikely that dishonest applicants will be caught.

Moreover, Rhode Island was (and still is, as far as I know) generous in allowing other sources of income when calculating check amounts. It isn't enough, in other words, to note that a family of three would get $554 per month in RI, but more than that in every other New England state but Maine. One must see how quickly other states adjust their payments to address other household income. When last I looked into it, Rhode Island quickly exceeded Massachusetts for those who were able to find a couple hundred dollars a month from other sources.

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Helping my sister file her tax return last week:

Sis: "Can you believe I raise a kid and live on my own for just $4K a year?"
Me: "Well that's one part, don't you also get food stamps?"
S: "Well yeah, but that's only a few hundred a month, and it's for food."
M: "And heating assistance?"
S: "Sure, but that's because I can't afford heating."
M: "What about child support?"
S: "When I get it, it helps."
M: "And cash assistance?"
S: "That's barely anything."
M: "And you and your kid both have heath care from the state, right?"
S: "Of course we do, but it's not free! I have to pay $ every time we need to go to the doctor!"

There are more things to tap, too. There's subsidized housing, various other programs she could get help with, rental assistance, educational assistance, and she might take on a foster child.

Also, we discussed her options for work, the state does such a bad job finding people who are working under the table, it just makes sense to take a few part-time gigs, do odd-jobs, or 'babysit' for a few friends for cash on the side and still collect.

I will say that she's disabled, but I have a feeling that she could be matched with some sort of work that needs to be done (transcribing records from paper to digital for the state?). The state needs to tear down the existing system and build a unified, comprehensive safety-net command-and-control system that actually works.*

*And by 'works', I don't mean 'sends checks regularly', I mean one that matches people's needs and abilities with services and tasks that need to be done, and provides a nice ramp from 'getting money' to 'contributing to society'.

Posted by: mangeek at April 25, 2011 10:19 AM

Since it is plainly impossible for a family of three to survive on "$554 per month", something else must be going on.

It would seem that there must be some explanation not being made clear.

Are there significant other non-cash subsidies? Housing, food, transportation? There must be,

Fraud? Is the family unit receiving support from "non-countable" sources, such as a working boyfriend? Part time "under the table" employment?

Is there some "underground economy" that most of us are unaware of? Prostitution? Drugs? Petty thefts and scams? RI puts criminal records on-line, I have seem some unusual results. Does a "record" of petty crime foreclose the possibiity of employment, I suspect it does. I had an unmarried couple doing my plowing for many years. Through variuous conversations, it appeared they had no "visible means of support", other than the plowing. The woman had several adult children, and I assumed had received state assistance. Being curious, I ran them through the online criminal record index. Both were in their 50's. The man was "clean", but had mentioned about 5 "worker's comp" claims. The woman had recent arrests, and convictions, for forgery, counterfeiting, B&E in the nightime, larceny over and receiving stolen goods.

If "living on welfare" is as difficult as it might appear, why does it persist? I suspect there are "structural factors". Really, what is an unwed, uneducated, mother of two expected to do about her situation? Well, close her legs for one.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at April 25, 2011 10:33 AM

I used to know a guy who was "disabled" because he had a heart attack once. Ok. I never saw any reason he couldn't do some desk job doing data entry. Instead, he was happy to received help from the state.

I also know someone who is disabled with Parkinson's, but he's able to still put in some shifts at a grocery store. However, he knows the line that cannot be crossed by his scheduler, or else he'll lose his benefits. 15 hours, no more.

I still like the phrase I recently heard someone use, "choices vs. circumstances". If you make choices, you're on your own. If you're a victim of circumstance, I'll be there to help.

Posted by: Patrick at April 25, 2011 10:35 AM

"The woman had recent arrests, and convictions, for forgery, counterfeiting, B&E in the nightime, larceny over and receiving stolen goods."

Yeah Warrington, you might want to be careful about having those people around. The plowing business could really just be some reconnaissance into what is in that Faust household and whether it's worth the risk. A great many B&Es are done by people who have at least a partial understanding of what they're getting into and what they're going after.

"So, we're going away for the week, would you mind coming and plowing the driveway if it snows while we're gone?"

"Heh, sure we'll plow! Anytime Warrington, anytime! "

Posted by: Patrick at April 25, 2011 10:42 AM

"Is there some "underground economy" that most of us are unaware of?"

Yes. It's pretty easy to get work under the table: Bars, restaurants, convenience stores, landscaping, painting, carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, day care... All of these fields have significant numbers of folks working off the books.

Prostitution is at LEAST a $100 Million industry in the state. Illegal drugs are much, much more. The biggest is probably small services businesses (roofing, painting, siding, plumbing, etc.) that just have a few extra folks 'helping' off the books. I know every time I've called a plumber, there's the guy who carries his certification and speaks English, and usually one or two folks who keep quiet and help out.

Posted by: mangeek at April 25, 2011 10:54 AM

This incident is a prime example of why Politifiction is a lying, Leftist propaganda organization. They purposely and clumsily redefined welfare in order to oppose Colleen's statement.

Anyone who believes a single one of their pieces deserves to live under a socialist dictatorship. May they roast in Dante's seventh circle.

Posted by: BobN at April 25, 2011 11:01 AM

"The woman had recent arrests, and convictions, for forgery, counterfeiting, B&E in the nightime, larceny over and receiving stolen goods."

I see you've met my ex-girlfriend! I should have known better when she got arrested for outstanding warrants on our first date. Mom and Dad were not enthused when I asked them to loan me some money for bail.

Posted by: mangeek at April 25, 2011 11:07 AM


I have learned the hard lessons through a "pick up" crew of carpenters I had working on a place in Brookline. Another hard lesson from the same incident. They had stolen most of my guns, and I dutifully reported it to the police. Giving them a list with serial numbers, I naively asked if I might hope to see any of them. The detective replied, after scanning the list, "If any cop finds these, you'll never see them". Interestingly, they didn't get the Mannlicher under my daughter's bed, they probably just hit the main stash and split.

An interesting note, experienced burglars rarely venture above the first floor. "Droppings" on your bed indicate kids.

While reflecting on my previous comments above, it occurred to me that all of the "tricks" are probably well known to other "denizens of the deep". If the truth were to be known, by the ProJo, and others; I have a suggestion. Why not get rid of the "journalists" Then, send a couple of guys in watch caps, team jackets, and old Red Wings to hang out in neighborhood bars and "talk about things". There are plenty of working guys who are offended by the system, but also have relatives "in the game" who talk about the angles.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at April 25, 2011 11:08 AM

There is no substative difference between providing people with assistance for basic goods and services and simply giving them cash or writing a standard check. The income that would otherwise have gone to those necessities is freed up to be spent on iphones and what have you, but it "feels" better to the taxpayers because the check says "food" or "housing" somewhere on it. In effect, we're still paying for the iphones. A complicated government network of various "subsidies" and "assistance" just makes it more palatable to the public (through confusion) than sending a massive lump sum check every month, and it allows organizations like PolitiFact to play dumb and obfuscate through parentheticals. As an added bonus for the statists, every new subsidy requires a new government agency and support staff to administer. It's a grossly inefficient system even to the most progressive redistributionist, and its sole reason for existence is its lack of transparency. Just like the 100's of fees, fines, and taxes you are slapped with every year. I'll say it again - there would be a lot more libertarians out there if people actually knew what they were paying. Nothing would smack you in the face harder than the reality of a giant, bold lump sum number taken out of your bank account every month.

Posted by: Dan at April 25, 2011 11:15 AM

I couldn't agree more, Dan. I wonder if it WOULD just be easier for the state to cut checks (or add balance to debit cards) on a weekly basis for folks. Just one lump-sum, not a bunch of different checks and subsidies. Would it be cheaper? Would making folks budget (instead of 'budgeting for them') make the recipients more fiscally-wise?

It is a bunch of feel-good mumbo-jumbo. Imagine the frustration if you were disabled, $20 short on rent, but had $100 extra in food stamps because your garden was bountiful? It drives people to find ways to 'transfer' the stamps into cash money. That's a real-life situation that happens all the time.

Posted by: mangeek at April 25, 2011 11:21 AM

Mangeek writes:
"Prostitution is at LEAST a $100 Million industry in the state"

During the campaign to reform the prostitution laws, an article in the ProJo directed me to a web site for "fans" of street walkers in Providence. They called themselves "whore mongers". (Sorry, I no longer remember the name of the site).

Perusing the site was interesting. Some of the comments gave me an insight into a sordid lifestyle unknown to me "I picked up Kathy today, her teeth still aren't quite green". In general, it gave names of the women, their location and hours, the location of police surveillance and a number of other things which would need to be known. Other comments concerned the women's weight gain, or loss. Attitudes and idiosyncrasies. The likelihood of disease, etc.

Most interesting were comments on how they bargained the price and avoided detection by the police.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at April 25, 2011 11:31 AM

"During the campaign to reform the prostitution laws, an article in the ProJo directed me to a web site for "fans" of street walkers in Providence"

Warrington, street walkers are the very bottom of the whole industry. It's like comparing a master carpenter to the guys you see standing on the corner looking to hop in a truck to put up drywall for cash.

There are hundreds of people in this state who are making ends meet by running a little 'escort' operation on their own, or with a service. I know, when I was trying to keep the 'loophole' open, I had nurses, college students, and homemakers confiding in me that they did (or still do) use prostitution as a way to get to or stay in the middle class.

Posted by: mangeek at April 25, 2011 11:41 AM

While I'm outraged on a daily basis by the abuse of government assistance I see firsthand, I'm also humbled by the true poverty some of these"welfare recipients" receive. The job is ferreting out the abusers from those who benefit from the benefits. Figure that one out and you win the prize.

In my opinion, the leader of the Rhode Island Tea Party would be wise to make public statements about welfare less frequently unless she has valid, bulletproof information to back her up. It's not as if the movement is on firm ground here. The perception that the Tea Party is out of touch is only re-enforced. I didn't hear this particular statement, but did hear somebody from the leadership speaking to Tony Cornetta, and she sounded contemptuous and bitter toward the people receiving government assistance.

Posted by: michael at April 25, 2011 2:03 PM
The real lesson, I'd say, is that folks making such statement's as Conley's have to add a parenthetical note to include other welfare programs than just cash assistance.

So let's get this straight. The reporters contact Conley, who says her source was a study by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, a study that actually found RI near the bottom of the heap in New England, and the lessen you draw is that she needs to add a parenthetical?

When we questioned her, Conley directed us to the welfare "vendor payments" section of the RIPEC report, noting, as RIPEC did, that "per capita vendor payments almost tripled in Rhode Island, growing by 178.9 percent between FY 1998 and FY 2008."

When we asked Conley what the payments were and how those payments might be cut back to bring us in line with everyone else, she said it's up to the state to look into that. "I'm not a policy wonk nor do I head a 501c3 think tank," she added.

So what is a vendor payment? We went to RIPEC.

"Those are not welfare recipients. Let's be very clear," said Ashley Denault, RIPEC's research director. They represent payments to doctors, nursing homes and organizations that charge the state for health- or mental health-related services for the poor.

Still waiting on the Conley's "huge concrete ideas" to reduce payments to physicians and nursing homes by denying healthcare to poor children, the elderly, etc.

Posted by: Russ at April 25, 2011 2:11 PM


Sometimes I think you need to re-read that on whicy you're commenting before you comment.

Yes, you've got it straight: payments to those who provide non-cash welfare services should be considered part of our welfare expense.

Posted by: Justin Katz at April 25, 2011 2:31 PM

Posted by mangeek at April 25, 2011 11:41 AM
"I had nurses, college students, and homemakers confiding in me that they did (or still do) use prostitution as a way to get to or stay in the middle class."

Mangeek, such people are within my own experience. But I suppose I didn't make a clear point. Had I thought of it, I would have distinguished between a "pot walloper" turning an occasional trick to make ends meet, and a street walker who is more likely to be on public assistance.

Reading that through, I wonder if there is that much distinction. I suppose the distinction is in how you solicit, not the result sought.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at April 25, 2011 3:00 PM

People lie in both directions on welfare forms out of a mix of greed and shame. This was discussed at length in Freakonomics. They conceal expensive electric appliances such as washing machines and dryers in order to maximize their payout from the state, but at the same time they often do not disclose features of their homes like dirt floors out of embarrassment. Interesting psychological footnote, but the take-away principle is that people lie, so verify, verify, verify.

Posted by: Dan at April 25, 2011 3:39 PM

If fraud and waste were substantially reduced among providers and recipients of public assisatnce of all types,social services could be provided without tax increases and without going broke.
No politician has the grit to go at it for real.

Posted by: joe bernstein at April 25, 2011 9:47 PM

I haven't met anyone that doesn't like my idea for rooting out fraud. Pay auditors by what they bring to conviction. You find and convict someone of a million dollars, you get a percentage. I don't know how much there is out there, so I don't know if it should be 1% or 10%. If this was a Medicare investigator, I'd do 1%. Since we're talking about RI, then maybe 10% is the way to go.

You find it, you get paid. You don't find any, you're broke.

Posted by: Patrick at April 25, 2011 9:59 PM

Thing of it is, the vast majority of welfare cheats are illegal aliens, and those visa workers we're told are 'needed'. Illegal aliens aren't forced to comply with documentation, that is a violation of state laws, and it's done with the collusion of DCYF administration. Illegals on welfare drive expensive new cars, have all the mod cons, including cable tv, which is NOT affordable if one is living on welfare honestly. We're subsidizing cheap, illegal alien labor.

The visa workers are being given cash assistance in some cases, but also always given food stamps medicaid or a backdoor, taxpayer funded free healthcare plan. They are receiving section 8 (pushed to the head of the list by corrupt democrats in the legislature) or a backdoor, taxpayer funded housing subsidy that's off the books. A friend of mine lives in an apartment complex, it doesn't accept section 8, but foreign nationals brought here on visas from India, live in apartments there, and a large percentage of their monthly rent is paid for through vouchers they get from the state. Someone in the management office told this to my friend.

Foreign nationals, illegal and legal as well should be banned from social welfare programs, and there shouldn't be special welfare programs for them either. It's a new form of corporate welfare. Also, if you're collecting welfare for young children, there should be a cut off, that if you have more children once on welfare, they should be denied benefits, to discourage those who have more children to increase the amount they receive. There should be no incentive to increase your burden on the taxpayer. What's more, there should be routine, unannounced home visits to those collecting welfare, food stamps, section 8, to find out if these people truly do need such help. If you can afford to drive a newish car, have cable, and other luxuries, the taxpayer has a right to know, and if there is a husband working, the salary needs to be documented and the benefits cut. Illegals work off the books and take welfare, at times under more than one name, and live high on the hog as a result.

Posted by: Jenny at April 26, 2011 8:31 AM

A free apartment.
SSI and crazy checks for you and all your kids.
Free heat.
Free medical.
Free babysitting.
Free lawyers and "advocacy" from useful idiot groups.
Free food baskets and toys for holidays.
Oh, and $200 a month for you and all your kids plus whatever you can make under the table or from youy baby's daddies.
Not lucrative at all......and VERY sustainable.
Guatamala.... come on down!

Posted by: Tommy Cranston at April 26, 2011 10:13 AM

Not following you, Justin. Perhaps you should reread my comment.

Near as I can tell what you're saying is that when the studies the Tea Party offers to support their mythology don't actually say what they erroneously thought they did they should simply make up a something else and move on. That about right?

Posted by: Russ at April 26, 2011 10:20 AM

This welfare queen myth is just as distasteful now as it was when Reagan spouted the same nonsense.

For your part, Justin, your plan is to stop providing preventative healthcare to children? I think most would agree with me that preventative care is the most cost effective option.

But the real bloat is in child care and healthcare, which helps to explain the difficulty in tracing the degree to which RI's welfare system draws the poor to our state.

Still waiting to see the "huge concrete ideas" on how to fix the healthcare system by denying poor children access to it.

Posted by: Russ at April 26, 2011 10:43 AM

Russ-you apparently think what relly happens frequently is a myth.
A few years ago a woman in Providence was busted as the ringleader of a heroin distribution operation.She was on welfare and food stamps and alhad a Cadillac Escalade and a Harley.
I can't tell you how many drug dealers I arrested who had a house full of toys and were on assistance also.
Why don't you stop the doctrinaire rants and look at what really goes on?
BTW the female ringleader was Hispanic,but a native born American and her crew could've been an ad for Brotherhood Day.White,Black,Hispanic-didn't matter -all dopers.Everything with you has to fit some progressive template.It doesn't work that way,pal.

Posted by: joe bernstein at April 26, 2011 4:58 PM
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