Just Who Is On the Dole?

Who's getting welfare checks in Hampden County?

Some 11,481 households, that's who. And that's 6.7 percent of all the households in the county.

But it's getting harder and harder to get and keep benefits. And it's getting harder and harder to cheat the system.

The statistics first.

Of the Hampden County welfare recipients, 96 percent are females, 52 percent have high school diplomas or GEDs, 12 percent have some college.

Some 69 percent either have no work history or haven't worked in five years.

And only 7 percent are under age 20. Roughly half (50.8 percent) are Hispanic, a third (30.3 percent) are Caucasian, a sixth (16.9 percent) are African American, and a very small percentage (1.6) are Asian.

Two years ago, Massachusetts totally changed the rules on welfare--mandating work in exchange for benefits for able-bodied recipients, limiting benefits to two years out of any five years, freezing benefits for children at the family size when welfare begins, telling single mothers they have to live at home or in group housing rather than in apartments paid for by welfare.

There were safety nets provided--child care and health care, for example. And it was never the intent to take benefits away from people unable to work due to disabilities, or handicaps, for example. The intent was to break the generational chain of reliance on welfare.

Perhaps the most important part of welfare reform is the system being installed to cut down on welfare fraud and illegal food stamp trafficking. It's called the EBT--Electronic Benefits Transfer system.

Each welfare recipient gets an EBT card. No card, no benefits. But there's a lot more to that little card.

It stores facial images. So if a welfare recipient applies for benefits in another area--a Westfield resident, say, who already has a card, also applies for benefits in Lowell--the state's computer recognizes that person's eyes, nose and ears. And, the computer refuses to issue another, duplicate, card. You won't get a second EBT card with a fake ID, and with the other six New England states participating, you won't get benefits in two states either.

You can change your haircut, put on glasses, paint on eyebrows or a bigger mouth, but the computer will know. It's the same system that is used on the new Massachusetts drivers licenses, by the way.

Back to the card itself. It's being phased in, with more than half of the state's welfare recipients now receiving cash and food stamps electronically. Everyone will be on-line by October l, when welfare recipients will be able to use their EBT cards at 3000 ATM machines and purchase food at more than 4,000 participating supermarkets and convenience stores.

Because food stamps won't be sent through the mail, recipients won't be able to sell the stamps on the street for cash to purchase drugs, cigarets or alcohol. (It's estimated that some $10 million of the $270-million in food stamps are illegally used or traded.) And, by eliminating paper checks and food stamps, taxpayers will be saved $1-million in administrative costs.

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