Wittich’s Star Witness Calls Welfare Recipients “Wild Animals” and Liars

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Yesterday, two committees featured the testimony of three state workers about their perceptions about fraud, waste and abuse in social welfare programs. While I found their remarks inflammatory, offensive, and unverifiable, I decided not to criticize any of the individuals by name, as I felt the broader point was served to critically examine their remarks. That was my position until a tipster dropped me an e-mail sent by one of those who testified, in which her clear attitude of contempt for the people she is paid to serve becomes painfully apparent.

The following excerpts are from an e-mail sent by Kirsten Brown, the client service coordinator who was the star witness in Representative Wittich’s sham hearing yesterday.

I want to be clear: I take no real pleasure in tearing down Ms. Brown, but her attitude towards the people she serves and her downright hostility to the poor badly undermine her credibility, almost as much as her inability to prove any of the allegations she makes in this letter or made during her testimony yesterday. When Chairs Wittich and Ehli brought her to speak, presumably they were aware of her attitude and lack of evidence—and they chose to present this farce to the people of Montana in order to gin up a controversy about fraud in public assistance programs.

While I will work through the rest of her letter in order, I want to start with an observation Ms. Brown made about the people it is her job to serve, comparing them to “wild animals,” a remark just condemned in the Billings Gazette when made by Senator David Howard.

 I am pleading for some sort of help in this matter. There are many able bodied adults that are simply relying on the benefits we provide. It is very similar to the adage about not feeding wild animals as they will become dependent on the handouts.

Upset about difficulties with the computer program she must use for her job, Ms. Brown resorted to attacking Indians:

This happens on a weekly basis. I struggle to see the commitment here. Is this a case of stubbornness? This program has cost taxpayers millions of dollars and CONTINUES TO! The programmers are STILL getting paid to correct a system that continues to fail EVERYONE involved. Yet another barrier is that the programmers are Indian. This presents communication problems mostly because the programs we administer are extremely complicated.

She’s angry that she needs to answer the questions of people who need public assistance. Remember, she works in the Office of Public Assistance:

One new feature in the “Service First” farce is the “Phone Cloud.” The idea is that our clients can call a toll free number and speak with someone who can answer their questions/resolve issues immediately. This has proven to be extra steps for EVERYONE involved. The Phone Cloud workers are employees from the OPA offices across the state. We are required to take turns answering the calls.

She remained steadfast in her willingness to use second-hand, absurd anecdotes to paint public assistance recipients as wealthy liars:

We have clients who are lying about living with spouses, spouses working out of state, etc. Rather than request verification of the spouse’s income, one caseworker was told that maybe the husband has addiction issues and this is how the mother is feeding her children. All the while, the mother is driving a Hummer.

She argues that she knows Food Stamp recipients with over $100,000 in their saving and/or checking accounts, even though, by her own testimony there is no resource limit for SNAP so she couldn’t possibly know:

Are you aware that there is no resource limit for Food Stamps? This means that you can have $100,000 in a checking or savings account and still qualify for Food Stamps if your income is within the guidelines. If you think that someone with a liquid resource of that value would never apply for benefits (as most do) you are mistaken. I have co-workers that have literally cried over applications that they’ve had to approve.

She seems like someone who’s really interested in working to help children:

The last time “The Heads” visited our office they noted that our lobby was not, “Warm and inviting.” Our Field Operations Manager ordered toys for our lobby. They were mounted on the wall for children to play with. Exactly one week after installation one of the toys was dismantled (joint effort between 2 different children) and had to be reassembled. It was NOT a flimsy toy! A couple of weeks later it was dismantled again.

And, for someone so willing to call other people demonstrated improper entitlement, she seems blissfully unaware that her position is an actual job, not one scheduled around her needs:

We were recently advised that our 4-10 flex schedule will soon end. We will all be required to work 5-8 hour days. Some of these folks have worked 4-10’s for 20 years. There are moms who are now burdened with the expense/task of finding an additional day of daycare among many other scenarios such as the expense of fuel in our vehicles to travel an additional day each week. While I understand that the ability to work a flex schedule is somewhat of a luxury, I also challenge you to understand that it was one of the last few perks of this job. I find it offensive to observe that the push of DPHHS is for healthy, happy families … Yet this ONLY applies to the client.

She concludes with the argument that the majority of people receiving public assistance have no desire to become self-sufficient and wild accusations about rampant fraud by “many irresponsible people”:

There is no desire for the majority of the clients to become self-sufficient. The amount of applications we are handling are ridiculous, many are people reapplying because their benefits were closed due to their failure to turn in a required form or verification. This ends up being much more work for everyone involved but we are required to issue the benefits ASAP….I do not know what the answer is but I know that the system cannot continue as it is…. Millions are being wasted on a program that is feeding many irresponsible people.

People who need public assistance need help. They need temporary funds to care for their families, they need adequate resources for rent, and most importantly, they need to be treated like human beings. Can you imagine what it would be like for a recently divorced mother coming in to meet Ms. Brown to schedule temporary benefits? The DPHHS’s goal of improving customer service is not the problem Ms. Brown contends; it’s a necessary program because of the problem of people like Ms. Brown.

Hers are not the comments of conscientious whistleblower, exposing government corruption and fraud. They are the remarks of someone with a troubling hostility towards the poor, dripping with contempt for their struggle, and imbued with a sense of self-righteousness that’s sickening.

Of course, Art Wittich called her to testify. And of course we should pay her no attention–except as a problem to solve.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

24 Comments

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  • The Bible – in the Book of Isaiah – WARNS those in power to not OPPRESS the poor and widows, and repeated several times in the Bible, and Senator Fielder should know that along
    with Rep. Wittich, as I thought they had their ‘Sermon on the GOP Mount’ the Sunday before
    the 1st day of the session.

    • The computer program was done by Deloitte & Touche I believe – as a survivor the Deloitte & Touche and Unisys disaster that was the POINTS system in DOR, I can tell you that massive program failures are very common. In fact 70% of the computer programs built that cost over $10 million fail and are abandoned. I worked on a successful project for the Dept of Labor and the project manager for Fast Enterprises said that when he worked for KPMG, they had a 40% failure rate. The Indian programmers she is probably referring to are working for Tata or some other company from India – and it is no joke that the language barrier caused some of the problems. California had to build 4 computer programs to administer their welfare system and one was so bad that for 10 years it did not work and they were using manual calculations to figure out benefits. I spoke to their legislative auditor about it because it was another Unisys failure. It might be time for the legislature to think about the real problem which is a failed computer system. When we got rid of POINTS, revenue collections soared, taxpayer records were more accurate, and unemployment insurance was sound again.

      • Lisa, you are a gem. That was the biggest comments made during the 1st session in which these people testified. Deloitte has built systems that have taken many millions of dollars of tax payers money all of this country! Look it up – it’s no secret. Yet, they keep using the same tactics cuz they still work.

        #2 – Many of the programmers are Indians….from India….do not understand what’s being said or asked of them. It has been a huge deterrent to ever having a working system. Not that they are not likeable, they are but it doesn’t work when we’re building a computer system in America for those that mostly speak English.

        I wish your testimony was included about Deloitte during these sessions.

  • She is a disgrace. I hope she loses her job and then she might find out what it’s like to struggle. As a public servant paid by the taxpayers of Montana, she has a responsibility to treat our fellow citizens with respect.

    • I agree! She needs to be fired. Her lack of respect for her clients is disgusting. I’m a retired social worker, and I am totally appalled by her behavior!

  • Ms. Brown either got bad advice or no advice from legal counsel. I find her disparage of Indians particularly galling.

    • By Indians I think she meant citizens of India, where much computer programming, often of a high quality, is done. I don’t think she was casting aspersions on American Indians. She testified under subpoena, and as a whistle blower, so I hope no one tries to get her fired in retaliation. I have posted some thoughts on this situation and the Wittich/Ehli dog and pony show, at http://www.flatheadmemo.com.

      • I find it hard to believe that Wittich just randomly issued a subpoena to this young woman. She must have reached out to the tea party in her area and offered to give this appalling testimony.

        • Brown may well have sent signals she would testify to certain things if compelled to testify. The subpoena protects her nonetheless. Instead of going after Brown’s job, or attacking her character, those who disagree with her should concentrate on her testimony and refute it with fact and argument.

  • She will sue if she is fired; which will cost taxpayers $$. She can however, be reprimanded, demoted or reassigned. Job descriptions & guranteed state employee rights will hamper the process, but they won’t stop the state from taking action. The Director of DPHHS is a great guy and I doubt he’ll be happy with this.
    Don’t think she’s the only state employee that thinks this way – there are plenty on the state’s payroll. But, the VAST majority of state employees are hard working, fair-minded and responsible.
    This story needs to get out there and I took the first step by calling the Director’s office of the DPHHS – 406-444-5623 – and just got off the phone with his assistant who said they will be bringing this situation to the Director’s attention. I have also posted this on my FB page & Tweeted it. I would ask that everyone that reads this please do the same. Thank you

  • Kate, I totally agree with you on all points but if she used her State e-mail account for this racist bigotry, she may not have a leg to stand on. She works in one of the poorest counties with nearly the highest unemployment rate in our great State of Montana. As she was testifying about how all poor people are liars and cheaters, the biggest employer in the county annouced they will be laying off all of their employees except for a skeleton crew of about 6. Sixty plus employees will be without work, yet again. I pray they don’t all descend on her at once or that she says they should have known when they took that job that they would be laid off. I have worked in public assistance for better than 10 years and have never, ever know anyone to be so hateful.

    • I use to work at the only state run treatment facility for addicts &/or co-occurring disorders and I worked alongside a few people that didn’t believe in addiction or mental illness, a few co-workers that came to work high &/or drunk and various other unbelievable scenarios. I know the vast majority of state employees are hard working, honest & dedicated; but the ones that are horrid smear everyone else with their filth.

      Did you know that we can ask for her emails? We can, it will just take time and will be a hassle.

      Have sent a link to this article to all Democratic Legislators, contacted the Governor’s office and am spreading the word. No one can tell me that Wittich & Ehli aren’t small minded bigots.

  • The comment about the “animals” can be traced all the way back to Malthus, and the reason for the passage of the New Poor Law of 1834, that eliminated “outdoor relief” for just about everyone, because it would “violate the laws of nature.”

    She reminds me of the eligibility examiners I was in contact with in the 1980s. Clients said that they acted like “it was coming out of their own pocket.” The thing is, the amount of the grant is pitiful. It’s not like recipients are getting rich on this.

    Also, on the comment about resource limits, there is a resource limit for SNAP: http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/resources-rules-resource-limits It’s between 2250 and 3250 in “countable” resources. She may have been referring to a retirement plan. Those are not counted. So she would be arguing that someone with a 401K (or similar) should cash it in, suffer the penalty, and have nothing when they retire.

    • Thank you for the clarification on the resource limits. I didn’t believe her when she said it, but didn’t have the time to look for the actual regulation.

      Thanks.

      • FNS does have resource limits, but Montana has been granted a waiver so in Montana, SNAP recipients who fall under the category of “expanded categorically eligible” are not subject to resource limits. But that is not to say they don’t have to report resources. The only reason a Client Service Coordinator would examine a SNAP recipient’s resources would be to determine if that resource is producing income. So if the CSC sees that the client is living at one address and owns property somewhere else, it is on the CSC to ask if the client is renting out that property thus earning income.

        • Thank you Trudy for trying to explain. It seems that everyone likes to focus on the negative remarks, most of which are mis-quoted, than to look at the facts. SNAP does not have a resource limit at this time, in Montana except for a very rare few who are aged/disabled with income that exceeds the standards. Then they are subject to a resource limit. Most of those are not eligible due to the high income anyhow. I worked in the agency for 33 years and the last 11 were as a trainer.

      • SophieBlue and Don – Believe me, if you are trying to find policy in the policy manuals on line, you will almost always be getting wrong information. The policy manuals haven’t been updated in years. And YES there is NO Resource limit in Montana, at this time. There are a very rare few that are subject to a limit – aged/disabled applicants with income over the standards. Then they have a resource limit. Normally, they aren’t eligible because of the allowable deductions and not passing the net income test. I worked in the agency for 33 years and the last 11 as a trainer. Policies for all programs are complex and diverse. This state needs help getting a working computer system – it’s YOUR tax money that’s being wasted!! That’s what the uproar should be about.

        • The hearing had almost NOTHING to do with computer systems. The House Republicans and those three testifying were far more interested in attacking the poor.

          • Don, I testified at the hearingS – and the first one was all about the shoddy computer system that robs the caseworkers’ time which could be better used to help the needy. You are referring to the 2nd testimony given the same day, by the same people about policies that need changing, such as having a resource limit for SNAP (Food Stamps) for everyone. And closing loopholes where a person that says they are pregnant, with no verification, can get Medicaid for quite a long time. You are paying out the nose for these faulty policies. You know how expensive medical care is in this area?! The theme for those testifying was to bring attention and awareness to these types of policies. The needy are what the workers are there for but computer systems that don’t work, (take a few minutes and read about Deloitte’s dismal history with California, Colorado,Massachusetts and New York) fraudulent clients who take up time that could be used to help the truly needy along with huge lack of retention (meaning that new workers that are not trained well can cause even more frustration and error and delay) are what’s wrong in the agency. There was no attack on the poor. You have misinterpreted what has been said. You are an english teacher – surely you know how dangerous it can be to take a statement out of context. The caseworkers that came forward were courageous enough to come forward knowing there would be repercussions. There are over 300 employees working in the field in DPHHS and they have been silent out of fear of upper management who has one of the worst plans yet, of helping the needy. It would take a book for you or anyone to understand but they work as if under a dictatorship, oppressed and silenced.

  • Linda, I watched both hearings. And it was during the first one when the gentleman testifying was cut off by Senator Caferro for making unsubstantiated claims and vilifying the people who receive public assistance. And I would argue that the computer issues were only a small portion of what was discussed.

    From the beginning, I’ve said that I am open to discussions about improving the computer systems, but there was precious little evidence presented that they were a problem. Instead, there was a lot more talk about lying clients.

    I don’t think DPHHS is anything like a dictatorship, and it’s kind of over-the-top rhetoric that characterized the hearings.

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