No one likes to be though of as hard-hearted. But in an effort to find places to cut–to reduce our “obligations”–we simply need to take a closer look at our Human Services budget, which has $2.1 Billion (federal and state) in “assistance, grants and benefits” alone. Within that budget is the spending requested for the acute Department of Human Services, which has increased about 22% since 2009.
A review of the line items (PDF) shows that $864 million of Governor Chafee’s 2012 DHS budget is comprised of money from Rhode Island taxpayers, an increase of $127.5 million over last year. (That’s also with the $30.7 million in Veteran’s Affairs money going off the DHS’ books because the VA was made a new Department).
I suspect that advocates will explain that the increase in state funds is required to make up for the gap in Federal funding (nearly $111 million). This reduction in Federal funding correlates almost directly with a reduction in the Federal money spent on the Medical Benefits line item, where the loss of $111 million in Federal dollars is more than made up for with an increase of nearly $154 million in General Revenue expenditures.
This just points to the problem with becoming addicted and reliant upon the Federal government–or other “one time fixes”–to help smooth over budget gaps. The last Federal stimulus package just served as the latest drug of choice for the government addicts. Now it’s going away. No matter what the “heart” wants, the wallet has to be able to afford it. And we can’t (sorry, even the “Patriot Tax” doesn’t get us there, folks).
Yet, to really get to the nut of the problem, we can’t focus on the year-to-year gains or losses: it’s time to revisit the basic formulation we use to qualify people for benefits. For instance, with regards to medical benefits, families who make 250% of the Federal Poverty Level can tap into RIte Share, Rhode Island’s health care subsidization plan, for $1100 per year. That means taxpayers are subsidizing health care for a family of 4 with an income of $55,000 or a family of 5 with an income of $64,500.
I don’t know if the figures are available to determine how many at the top-end are taking advantage of these programs. It can even be argued that this is a good use of our tax dollars: a helping hand for people who will work their way up and out of needing this assistance. I can buy that, but maybe we need to put a time limit on it. Regardless, can we afford to be so generous? I don’t think so. But the problem may not be with offering a helping hand to people so close to not needing it.
I, like most Rhode Islanders, have empathy for those going through hard times. They’re our family, our neighbors, our friends. We support a safety net. We can’t afford to support a safety net “lifestyle.” The poor economy brought many “newbies” into the safety net who have learned first-hand how it is abused by the lifers. For too long, Rhode Island, with it’s generous benefit qualification “requirements”, has taken a “no questions asked” approach (ie; “666” for a SS#) and served as a magnet and safe haven for the safety net careerists. Reform in the cash assistance program helped a little. But any savings have been eclipsed by expenditures in other, non-cash programs like, for instance, the aforementioned medical assistance. Ask doctors and nurses (or EMTs) how many people use 911 and the Emergency Room as a primary care physician, even now with all of the health care reform.
For the system seems to be meant to be gamed. We reward people for having more children (giving them child-care subsidies, for instance, that often go to family members operating a “daycare”), particularly out of wedlock, while working under the table to minimize their reportable income. We need to identify the abusers and other areas of fraud, waste and abuse (a la Ken Block). We need to tighten the qualification requirements and stop being taken advantage of by the safety net industry careerists. We need to help those who actually try to help themselves out of the safety net instead of those who see it as a hammock.