Welfare fraud in perspective
TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial – Welfare fraud in perspective
Published On Wed Dec 09 2009
The provincial government is in the midst of “a new billion dollar boondoggle involving extravagant welfare overpayments,” according to the opposition Conservatives.
There is more political posturing than fact in this allegation, and it paints an unfair picture of the nearly 800,000 adults and children who are barely making ends meet on welfare and disability benefits.
Here are the facts: according to Auditor General Jim McCarter’s report, released Monday, there have been $186 million in unrecovered overpayments made to welfare recipients since 2002. That averages out to $26 million a year in an annual welfare budget of nearly $2 billion. And according to the government, overpayments have been on a downward trend: they amounted to less than $10 million last year.
The “billion-dollar boondoggle” is derived from the adding together of overpayments in both welfare and disability support programs going back many years – to the days when the Conservartives themselves were in power. That cumulative total is $1.2 billion, a figure the media seized on when the auditor’s report was released.
What’s more, “overpayment” does not necessarily mean fraud. When people on welfare who earn some income work a few more paid hours than expected, their welfare benefit is supposed to be reduced. If that reduction does not occur right away, it results in an overpayment. And when a case worker does not properly apply all the eligibility rules so that a recipient gets more support than he/she is entitled to, that is also an overpayment.
The auditor did uncover some cases of outright fraud, and they are troubling. Also of concern is the auditor’s finding that rules to prevent fraud are not always being followed by case workers.
In its response to the auditor’s findings, the government says it will do more to ensure case workers adhere to the rules. That will help to ensure that the money goes to those who need it, not to swindlers.
However, with as many as 800 rules in place, is it any wonder that overloaded caseworkers don’t follow all of them? Our mean-spirited and rules-bound social assistance system often serves to keep people down rather than give them a hand up. The system clearly needs an overhaul – a task the government has just assigned to an expert panel.
But it’s easier for the Conservatives to fulminate about people “scamming the system” than it is to advocate meaningful reforms to it.
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