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TRNN Special Report: In the town of Westminster, Maryland, some residents view public assistance as system with pervasive fraud and abuse

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Westminster, Maryland.

We’re about 45 minutes northwest of Baltimore, and we’re here in front of the Carroll County Department of Social Services.

Last time we were here, we spoke to many residents who said that increasing demand on social services seems to be on a lot of people’s radars. So we came back and we asked folks here in this predominantly white working-class town what comes to mind when they think of public assistance.

BRYAN, WESTMINSTER RESIDENT: I do hear things, how people just say, hey, just say this or say that, so they can get more out of the system. And that’s hurting everybody else who does need the help.

ROBERT, WESTMINSTER RESIDENT: That’s what I’m talking about by abusing it, people selling their food stamps or trading it to drug dealers for drugs. You know, here’s $200 of food stamps; give me what you’ll give me. I mean, there’s a lot of that going on.


THOMAS HEDGES, TRNN PRODUCER: Do you feel like people are taking advantage of public assistance? Or is that not–.

ALBERTO, WESTMINSTER RESIDENT: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I saw somebody with a BMW to walk-in and have the bills paid.


DESVARIEUX: Fraud, abuse, dependency–that’s how many in this town of about 18,000 residents would label public assistance. Almost 90 percent of residents here are white, and the majority vote conservative.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 17 percent of the population of Westminster lives below the federal poverty line. If you compare that to the state average of 9 percent, it’s considerably higher. That means about 3,060 residents could qualify for programs like food stamps and temporary cash assistance, otherwise known as TCA, Maryland’s version of welfare. But in reality, about 220 households in 2012 received TCA in the entire Carroll County of 170,000 residents.

So who are the people behind these programs? And is it riddled with the level of fraud that many in Westminster point to? We spoke with waitress Keri Beacham, who was on public assistance after her divorce.

KERI BEACHAM, WAITRESS: I had the opportunity, actually, when my marriage came to an end and my husband kind of kicked me out of the house, to actually take advantage of the food stamps service, and I actually had some help with my electric bill as well, because I wanted to be a responsible adult and pay my bills and take care of my family.

DESVARIEUX: Keri’s case is more the norm rather than the anomaly. Based off of the state’s 2012 statistics, 90 percent of those receiving cash assistance were women, all of them with dependent children, and 40 percent of them had children under the age of three.

But only 12 percent of all cases were required to participate in work-related activities. According to Maryland law, you may be excused from the work requirement if you are a parent with a child under the age of six and childcare is not available.

BEACHAM: I think it is primarily women, sure, the single moms and stuff that have kind of been abandoned or left on their own or that are trying to make sure that they’re taking care of their children and provide for them.

DESVARIEUX: Trying to provide for their family is what executive director of Human Services Programs of Carroll County Cindy Parr says she witnesses on a daily basis. Lazy is one word she says she would certainly not use to describe them.

CINDY PARR, EXEC. DIRECTOR, HSP: I don’t see the majority of our clients as being lazy. I see the majority of our clients as being people who are working very hard trying to make a living wage.

DESVARIEUX: And for Parr, the profile of a typical recipient of public assistance looks very different from the stereotype.

PARR: It’s probably a family in their ’30s to late ’30s with children, and relatives may be living with them that are also having a tough time, an elderly relative that may be living with them. I think that might be my take.

DESVARIEUX: So after being in the field, we decided to head back into the Baltimore newsroom to get an expert’s opinion on why there’s so much stigma attached to welfare. So we turned to historian and Oregon State University associate professor Marissa Chapelle.


DESVARIEUX: Marissa, thank you so much for joining us.


DESVARIEUX: So, Marissa, how did we even get here? Why is there so much stigma attached to welfare in the United States?

CHAPPELL: The program that we think of as welfare today is Aid to Families with Dependent Children. That’s what it was called. And it developed in the 1930s as part of a broader package of social welfare benefits. The designers of these programs really believed that the ideal family had a male breadwinner and female homemaker, and so they set up old-age insurance and unemployment insurance to protect male breadwinner jobs. And for women who lacked a male breadwinner and were raising children, they added federal funds to state-level mothers pensions programs. So this was a small cash benefit to poor children who lived in single-mother households.


DESVARIEUX: But the welfare system we know of today goes back to 1996. That’s when former president Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. And how did it change exactly? First off, it required participants to spend 40 hours a week in work-related activities. Second, it enforced time limits: participants cannot be on welfare for more than two years consecutively and five years over a lifetime. And third, Chappell said, it changed the funding model.

CHAPPELL: People who qualified would get that money, and the states would get a matching grant from the federal government. What happened in ’96 is that funding model changed, and now it’s a block grant, a capped block grant to states. So the states get a certain amount of federal money not related to what the need is in the state. And so now the entitlement essentially is over. So it became much more difficult to get on the rolls in the first place. If you went into a welfare office to apply, there are all sorts of requirements before that. You have to go call a certain number of employers, you have to ask family members for help, these sorts of things. So these are diversionary tactics. Welfare offices would kick people off of the welfare rolls for very small infractions–if they filled out paperwork incorrectly, if they were late to an appointment, and this sort of thing. And that became an opportunity to reduce the rolls that way as well.

DESVARIEUX: Proponents of reform, like President Clinton in this New York Times op-ed, “How We Ended Welfare Together,” point to how welfare rolls dropped from 12.3 million in 1996 to 4.6 million years later.

But what experts say got people off welfare in the first place was the booming economy of the ’90s, when employment was at a record high. Today, employment numbers are at a 30-year low. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 58 percent of the civilian population over the age of 16 had a job in 2013. Yet the number of folks on welfare rolls remained the same, despite the poor economy.

CHAPPELL: Even during recessions, the welfare rolls did not increase significantly. And that means that fewer people who need it are getting benefits. And people who leave the welfare rolls for employment–and a majority do leave for employment–are going into the same jobs they had before. They’re–to low-wage service jobs that lack the flexibility and the pay and the benefits that enable them to raise a family out of poverty.

DESVARIEUX: When it comes to lifting families out of poverty, the U.S. ranks low compared to other rich nations. A report released last year by UNICEF found that more than one in five American children fall below a relative poverty line, meaning they live in a household that earns less than half of the national median income. Out of all the 35 developed countries surveyed, the United States ranked 34th–above only Romania.

Here in Westminster, residents point to how the system doesn’t help people get out of poverty. Rather, folks like Bryan Cossette say it creates dependency. He says his girlfriend, who has a seven-year-old daughter, gets $360 a month in assistance. But he thinks she could be working instead of collecting welfare.

BRYAN COSSETTE, WESTMINSTER RESIDENT: Julia absolutely could go and work. Yeah. I mean, actually, as a matter of fact, she just put an application in yesterday at one of the restaurants locally. So she wants to start working again. She’s been working for her whole life, basically.

Yes, there are people that are just too–you know, just are lazy. And if they can fill the right forms out and their parents have been doing it and their uncle does it and everybody does it, it’s just becomes, you know, this is what you have to do to get your free money. You know? And everybody depends on that money. Instead of going out and working for everything they have, they’d rather just sit around, chill, and get a check in the mail.

DESVARIEUX: But Professor Chappell says this idea of dependency can actually create independence.

CHAPPELL: We talk a lot about dependence, welfare creates dependence. And for many single mothers, welfare, aid from the state, actually allowed them to have more independence. It allowed them to perhaps reject the most exploitative employment, to prioritize their children during times when they needed to do so, to leave abusive relationships, or to be less dependent upon the economic support of male partners.

DESVARIEUX: The economics of public assistance is being debated in Washington, but not on the issue of whether or not to cut spending, but rather by how much. This year, Congress passed a bill that cut $8.7 billion from food stamps. About 850,000 households nationwide have lost on average about $90 a month of benefits.

But new research by the Economic Policy Institute found that if you raise the minimum wage to $10.10, more than 1.7 million American workers would no longer rely on public assistance, and it would save taxpayers $7.6 billion a year. With Maryland’s current minimum wage at $7.25, the state’s governor, O’Malley, signed into law a bill that will raise the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2018. According to EPI, a single parent with two children in the Westminster region would have to earn almost $63,000 to keep a secure and modest living standard. For working mothers like Keri in a town with a median income of $48,000, a wage increase couldn’t come soon enough.

For The Real News Network, Jessica Desvarieux, Westminster, Maryland.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Jessica Desvarieux is a multimedia journalist who serves as the Capitol Hill correspondent for the Real News Network. Most recently, Jessica worked as a producer for the ABC Sunday morning program, This Week with Christianne Amanpour. Before moving to Washington DC, Jessica served as the Haiti corespondent for TIME Magazine and Previously, she was as an on-air reporter for New York tri-state cable outlet Regional News Network, where she worked before the 2010 earthquake struck her native country of Haiti. From March 2008 - September 2009, she lived in Egypt, where her work appeared in various media outlets like the Associated Press, Voice of America, and the International Herald Tribune - Daily News Egypt. She graduated from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism with a Master of Science degree in journalism. She is proficient in French, Spanish, Haitian Creole, and has a working knowledge of Egyptian Colloquial Arabic. Follow her @Jessica_Reports.

Thomas Hedges is a freelance photographer, videographer and writer based out of New York/New Jersey. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Salon, Demos, The Nation, NowThis, Brut. Media, Thrillist, and CBS. Hedges formerly worked as a producer for TRNN. Follow him @TAHedges.