Critics of governmental welfare programs have consistently expressed concerns about the abuse and fraud running rampant among those who claim eligibility. Almost every United States citizen has stood behind a SNAP recipient as they purchase steaks and junk food, watched a person collecting benefits get out of a new luxury car, or seen someone dig a Medicaid card out of a designer purse while flashing an outrageously expensive manicure.
After decades of denial, the federal government has been forced to acknowledge that a welfare overhaul is necessary. Thanks to the tireless efforts of ProPublica, the Biden administration is quietly, with little fanfare, addressing the abuse of welfare funds.
ProPublica is a nonprofit organization dedicated to uncovering potential abuses of power, and through its investigations, it has unearthed a massive conspiracy to defraud the welfare system.
But the source of the fraud isn’t the well-manicured Medicaid abuser.
In a report released in 2021, the organization revealed that multiple states have been mishandling the cash assistance program known as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
TANF provides financial assistance to low-income families with dependent children. The program’s primary goals are to provide temporary financial assistance to needy families and promote self-sufficiency. The program includes time limits on the receipt of benefits to encourage recipients to seek employment through its many job training and assistance resources.
TANF funds are granted to states, giving them flexibility in designing and implementing their programs to meet their populations’ specific needs. States must meet federal guidelines and are accountable for achieving specified outcomes, such as work participation rates.
But predictably, some states have figured out how to manipulate the system to keep the funding from those who need it most.
In some states, like New Mexico, single mothers seeking public assistance must identify the father of their child, including details like eye color and license plate number, and recall the precise date of conception. These questions aim to pursue child support from the father, much of which the state and federal government retains (over $1.7 billion nationally in 2020).
Utah subtly steers aid-seeking families towards the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where they face pressure to undergo religious activities, such as baptism or reading from the Book of Mormon. Utah avoided over $75 million in public assistance spending by counting the LDS Church’s charitable works as state-owned. A lack of clarity deterred some needy families from seeking assistance because they believed they would be forced, rather than “encouraged,” to participate in LDS activities to receive aid.
Meanwhile, Arizona investigates poor mothers at unprecedented rates through a child services agency funded by welfare dollars. Arizona balances its budget by redirecting welfare funds to its Department of Child Safety, using the money for surveillance and, at times, separating families. It has diverted over $150 million annually from welfare funds meant for low-income families,
The ProPublica report called out these state-run schemes, forcing the Biden administration to act. The resulting proposed reforms are a series of overhauls that will get the money out of the hands of the states and back into the wallets of families who desperately need it.
Among other reforms, the updated regulations would limit states from utilizing TANF funds for child protective services investigations, foster care, or any other initiatives designed to funnel money into CPS by removing children from their homes because of the “mistreatment” of the kids, frequently brought about by the need for the funds the needy families sought in the first place.
Another overhaul prevents states from considering charitable contributions from private entities, like churches and food banks, as part of their “state” welfare spending. This practice has enabled legislatures to allocate less funding to programs for low-income families while still asserting compliance with federal minimum requirements.
The changes would also redefine “needy” to exclusively encompass families with incomes equal to or below 200% of the federal poverty line. Certain states allocate TANF funds to programs such as sports stadiums and college scholarships, primarily benefiting the wealthy.
As a senator, President Joe Biden supported legislation granting states broad discretion in allocating federal dollars designated to help people experiencing poverty. Over the decades, legislatures have explored increasingly imaginative uses for the funding, including redirecting it to anti-abortion clinics or leaving it unspent in their coffers. The new regulations will require transparency in TANF spending, and states must now provide evidence that their TANF spending genuinely benefits families in need.
While the ProPublica report forced the floundering Biden administration into action, it’s a small step in the right direction.