Swiped in Secrecy: Welfare Spending Isn't Monitored in SC - WSPA.com

Swiped in Secrecy: Welfare Spending Isn't Monitored in SC

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No one monitors, tracks, or questions how the roughly 14,000 welfare families in South Carolina spend an estimated $35 million in taxpayer-funded assistance every year.

Why? Because that's just the way the system is set up, according to Lillian Koller, the lady in charge of the S.C. Department of Social Services.

Welfare is a federal program that's administered by each state's social services departments, and while there is room for each state to set some of its own parameters, the fundamental federal requirements of welfare are uniformed across the country.

And one of the main tenets of the welfare program include letting the recipients spend the money however they choose, though it is intended to benefit the child's well-being, whether that be paying rent or buying toiletries.

In other states, reporters have uncovered fraud in the system where welfare recipients were found to be spending money at liquor stores, casinos and gambling establishments.

While department officials do not deny there is likely a small amount of fraud in this state's welfare program, they argue the benefit amount is so small in comparison to other states that it's almost certainly not being wasted on frivolous expenditures.

In 2014, a new federal regulation goes into effect which will require states to come up with ways to prevent welfare recipients from spending their cash at liquor stores, casinos and gambling joints.

But because benefits are given out via electronic debit cards, which operate just like a regular VISA debit card, Koller says it will be hard to come up with a way to comply. Unless lawmakers make it illegal for those establishments to accept money from welfare recipients, there's not much Koller thinks the state can do.

And even if it were illegal, she says what's preventing someone on welfare from withdrawing cash at an ATM and then spending the money wherever they want.

This reporter filed multiple freedom of information requests seeking access to banking transactions for people on welfare in South Carolina, but DSS denied each one, saying it didn't possess such records because they are housed by J.P. Morgan Chase and protected by federal banking privacy laws.

So, while the department says it doesn't believe there's a lot of fraud, there's absolutely no way they can be sure.

S.C. Rep. Eddie Tallon, a republican representing Spartanburg, says, "there's got to be a way to check," so Tallon suggests having the bank run exception reports which would catch transactions made at questionable establishments, such as liquor stores.

Koller, and her deputy director Linda Martin, seem far less interested in talking about monitoring the transactions of Welfare recipients and more interested in talking about their work toward removing people from Welfare and placing them in jobs.

Koller says when she took over in 2011, she set goals for the agency to increase the number of people they move from welfare to work by 100%, and she says the agency has exceeded that goal.

For example, in 2010, just more than 5,000 people were moved off Welfare and into jobs. From summer 2011 through 2012, more than 16,000 welfare recipients have found work.

"Work heals," Koller said, and it's what she says she's most focused on.

While federal regulations allow welfare recipients to receive benefits for up to five years, South Carolina restricts the time limit to just two years. Plus, Koller says the benefit amount is far less in South Carolina than in other parts of the country.

For example, a mother with two children can receive a maximum monthly payment of about $270.

Also, the federal regulations talk about preparing people for work, but Koller says she's instructing her case works to get people work, not just prepare them.

Even with the impressive numbers of people moving into jobs, the number of people on Welfare before the recession compared to the number on Welfare currently remain about the same.

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