19,000 letters returned prompts look into the state welfare system
Recipients were sent voter registration applications last year
By Andy Metzger, State House News Service
The Patrick administration is facing criticism following the news that the Department of Transitional Assistance has incorrect addresses for 19,000 people whom it sent voter registration applications last year.
Of the nearly 478,000 mailings about 19,000 were returned.The letters stem back to a voters’ rights case that Massachusetts settled last year. In May 2012, a Lowell resident sued the state with the help of the advocacy organization Demos, alleging the state had not provided voter registration forms at public assistance offices for many years, making the state out of compliance with the National Voters Rights Act of 1993. As part of a July 2012 agreement with the plaintiffs, the state agreed to mail voter registration forms with a pre-paid envelope to every applicant or client of the DTA over a 12-month period.
Of the nearly 478,000 mailings that went out, about 19,000 were returned, the Boston Herald reported last week. State officials have pointed out not all of those 19,000 are welfare recipients, and have not been able to provide a breakdown of how many welfare recipients are unaccounted for based on the returned letters.
“Voting information was sent to a very broad group of people, not all of whom are actual recipients of benefits today,” Gov. Deval Patrick told reporters on Friday. “Anyone who had any interaction with the welfare system in the last year. Not all of those people are still on the rolls. Many if not most people receive their benefits electronically, not by mail.”
Patrick also said that for the 19,000 returned mailings, “You bet your life, we’re going to scrub through them and make sure that the information we have is up to date.” Patrick said the returned mailings “may not actually be indicative of a problem.”
State officials provided a breakdown of the 19,000 that showed about 11,200 were not receiving benefits and not required to update DTA of their whereabouts. The other roughly 7,700 were referred to local DTA offices where officials are verifying information case by case.
“The 7,700 pieces of mail that came back with a return address were contacted. We’re either verifying their new address as referred by the post office, or their benefits were stopped,” DTA Commissioner Dan Curley told the News Service. Curley said he is unsure how many of those 7,700 have been found to be out of compliance.
House Minority Leader Brad Jones said he believes the state’s “haste” to settle the lawsuit shows political underpinnings, and said that effort has now called the agency’s verification system into question.
“I think other states had similar cases that were resolved a little differently, and I think we were in much more of a haste, and I think there was a political motivation behind it. I absolutely do. Do I have some smoking gun evidence of it? No, I don’t. It’s conjecture on my part, but I’ve been around the building and around government long enough. Usually lawsuits take a long time to drag out,” Jones said.
He also said, “There’s irony, and maybe a little poetic justice that in what I would argue is their political desire – to register as many voters who maybe statistically are more inclined to vote for their preferred candidates – has now called to light gaping holes about, well, how often do we check? I mean if we did another mailing this year, just a compliance mailing if you will, I wonder how many we’d get back.”
Jones said House Republicans would focus on public assistance electronic benefit transfer reform this session, and said that the DTA should put more of an onus on welfare recipients, and that more care should have been taken in mailing out voter registrations.
“Isn’t it fair to say to the recipient, ‘Keep your address current.’ We’re happy to help people. We want to help people who need help,” Jones said. He said, “If you didn’t put the $400 on an EBT card this month, you can darn well be sure those 7,700 people would get themselves to an office and find out, ‘Hey what happened? Why aren’t I getting my benefit?’ ‘Well you didn’t have the current address.’”
Jones said it was “frustrating” that there wasn’t more data about the 19,000.
“What we did is we put them into the return-mail procedure that we have in place that we have in DTA’s offices, so it’s embedded in our whole system,” Curley said.
Curley also said the agency takes steps to ensure there is not misuse of the system.
“In 2008 we created a Patrick-Murray program integrity unit in DTA. At that point, we solidified. We brought together a number of different functions within the agency so that we could ensure quality of follow-up,” Curley said. Every year, working with investigators from the state auditor, the office looks into 6,000 outside referrals and another 5,800 referrals from local office staff, Curley said. In the past 12 months the office has undergone an over-payment process for 470 households, Curley said.