BOSTON – Last night, after a day-long debate and consideration of 85 amendments, the Massachusetts Senate passed legislation that makes necessary improvements to the welfare system, closing loopholes and implementing the tools and resources needed to help recipients reach economic independence announces State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield).
"This is a common sense bill to address specific abuses of our welfare system,” said Downing. “Now we must work to create more jobs at good wages and remove the need for welfare. That will not be easy, but we should not let the size of the challenge keep us from tackling the issue immediately.”
“We have been working on this issue since September, talking to stakeholders and advocacy groups and doing our due diligence to bring thoughtful changes to the welfare system,” Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) said. “The changes approved in this bill will provide those who are ready and able to work with the support needed to move forward and live independently. Helping our residents enter the workforce and lead successful and self-sustaining lives will help our economy grow and will support the overall health of the Commonwealth.”
“The bill lays down a pathway to economic independence for poor people, including the first recognition in years that a self-sustaining job is almost certain to require years of post-high school education,” saidSenator Mike Barrett (D-Lexington), Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities.
Senator Jennifer L. Flanagan (D-Leominster) said, “This legislation addresses many of the concerns brought to light by both EBT Commissions that I was appointed to serve on. It also provides a path to truly make these benefits transitional, not a way of life. I am proud of the provisions in this comprehensive piece of legislation; the Senate addressed this in a thoughtful, complete manner and not piece by piece, which will result in restoration of the public trust in this very important program”
“This plan is firm, fair and honest,” said Senator Stephen M. Brewer (D-Barre). “We know that meaningful reforms require meaningful investment; this bill provides funding that will connect recipients with vital tools to save and develop assets, learn job skills, and be connected to meaningful employment opportunities to foster economic independence. Furthermore, it combats fraud and holds applicants legally responsible for providing truthful information while ensuring that residents in need of public assistance will still be able to utilize it.”
Under this legislation, applicants are required to search for a job before they receive cash assistance, replacing the current regulations that provide recipients with a 60-day window after they start receiving benefits before they are required to look for a job. This bill also creates a job diversion program through DTA and the Commonwealth Corporation to connect able-bodied individuals with full-time jobs before they start receiving benefits.
This bill also revives the Full Employment Program that was originally established in 1995 to place recipients in full-time employment instead of receiving benefits from the state. The bill transfers responsibility for the program from DTA to the Commonwealth Corporation and requires the Commonwealth Corporation to identify job openings, match qualified recipients with the needs of the business community and work with recipients to provide relevant training and education. The Full Employment Program is mandatory for all recipients unless they are otherwise exempt from the work requirements.
Recipients who secure a full-time job will receive childcare for the first year of employment and employers who hire from the Full Employment Program will be eligible for a healthcare subsidy under the insurance partnership program. After receiving the healthcare subsidy for one year, a tax credit will be available to employers of $100 per month worked with a maximum credit of $1200 per participant. This tax credit was created in 1995.
The bill appropriates funding for DTA to hire additional caseworkers and additional fraud unit investigators and requires DTA to have specialists who are assigned to help high-risk recipients with a maximum caseload of 60.
To help recipients overcome the “cliff effect,” the bill develops an asset development program through DTA to allow recipients to save money for first, last and security rent payments and for education. This savings would not be counted against the asset limit of $2,500 and will support recipients as they transition out of the welfare system.
In addition, this legislation will strengthen assistance to pregnant teens and their children by allowing pregnant teens to be eligible for the Teen Living Program at the start of their pregnancy. Under the current regulations, pregnant teens must be 120 days from their due date to be eligible for a Teen Living Shelter Program.
The bill also closes existing loopholes that continue to serve as incentives for individuals to stay on welfare instead of working:
Requires the calculation of the five-year cap on the family rather than separate for each parent and requires DTA to develop specific criteria that must be met in order for a recipient to receive a waiver of the family cap for extraordinary circumstances;
Reduces the period for an extension of benefits beyond the 24-month period from six months to three months;
Changes the number of days in which a temporary absence from Massachusetts creates a presumption that Massachusetts residency has been abandoned from 60 to 30 days;
Changes the exemption from the work requirement for recipients who are age 60 or older to age 66;
Changes the exemption from the work requirement for women in the last four months of pregnancy to the last month of pregnancy unless the woman has a documented medical issue;
Requires self-declarations to be signed under the penalties of perjury and prohibits self-declarations from being used as the only verification of eligibility;
Requires work participation forms to be verified by a third party under the penalties of perjury;
Institutes a three-month time limit on placeholder social security numbers and suspends benefits for individuals who do not provide a valid social security number within the time limit; and,
Requires DTA to refer cases involving multiple even dollar transactions or full benefits withdrawals to DTA’s Program Integrity Division or to the Bureau of Special Investigations in the Office of the State Auditor.
The bill makes several changes to the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards by requiring photographs of recipients over the age of 18 on EBT cards by August 1, 2014 and requiring the welfare fraud hotline and DTA’s website to be printed on newly issued EBT cards. DTA is also required to record and track blank EBT cards.
For store owners who fail to check photographs on EBT cards, the bill creates penalties of no less than $100 and no more than $500 for the first offense, no less than $1,000 and no more than $2,500 for the second offense and no less than $5,000 for the third or subsequent offense. On the fourth offense, there will be a review of the establishment to determine if they should have the authority to accept EBT cards.
In addition, the bill requires DTA to make additional reports to the Legislature on the number of exemptions and extensions granted; how long recipients have been receiving benefits; economic independence goals; cases referred to the program integrity unit and the results of their investigations; economic independence accounts opened and recipients receiving cash assistance under one of the eligible noncitizen statuses.
The bill now goes to the House of Representatives.