The Shameful Spectacle in the House Human Services and Joint Health Committees Today

I’ve been trying to write for hours about the spectacle orchestrated by Republicans at the Legislature today, a shameful show in which they brought three witnesses to testify to two committees, on Martin Luther King Day, for the purpose of demonizing the poor with unsubstantiated claims alleging massive fraud and abuse in the current social safety net. In both the House Human Services Committee (chaired by Art Wittich) and the Joint Committee on Health and Human Services (chaired by Ron Ehli) three subpoenaed witnesses led the committees into a thicket of misinformation, aided and abetted by committee chairs more interested in promoting their agenda to scuttle Medicaid expansion than presenting the truth.

The three witnesses were brought to the committee by Representative Tom Burnett, a man who is convinced that his anecdotal observations about food security are more valid than statistical studies and evidence, and who has made a bizarre career of arguing that there is no hunger in the United States.

Armed with conventional wisdom, sometimes fourth-hand information, observations about their neighbors and their financial condition, and the smug satisfaction of people who don’t believe that anyone deserves government assistance, the two current and one former employee of the Office of Public Assistance assailed the poor, arguing at various points that:

  • many applicants lied about eligibility to get assistance.
  • many applicants lied about being pregnant to gain access to better care.
  • many applicants lacked the self-reliance and discipline to fill out necessary paperwork, and should be cut off to teach them a lesson.
  • that state agents should scour Facebook profiles to verify income and marriage status, not mention their own observations “driving by a house in morning” rather than trusting extensive databases and public information.
  • OPA workers should be able to process claims of fraud based on their personal observations of clients and “posting pictures of vacations” online.
  • the state should not emphasize service in its distribution of public assistance.
  • that at least one family had assets worth over one million dollars and earned at least $16,000/quarter in interest—and still received benefits.
  • other incredibly offensive, unverifiable claims designed to suggest massive fraud in the public assistance program.

When pressed by House Democrats, though, these stories were revealed for what they were: the kind of second-hand rumor-mongering that so often characterizes discussions about welfare and the safety net. When Representative Boldman-Hill pressed for case numbers and dates for verification, the three witnesses hemmed and hawed until rescued by Health and Human Services Committee Chair Art Wittich, who said he had no concerns about the hearsay nature of their testimony. When pressed further about why they didn’t report their horror stories to their superiors, the three witnesses fell back to hearsay claims and assured the committee that “people must have known.” When Representative Eck pressed for clarification about whether or not the state’s income verification system interfaced with those of other states, the Republicans on the Committee, on a party-line vote, refused to allow it. When Representative Karjala pressed for statistics to prove their claims, the three witnesses said none existed.

This rough cut of some of the committee questions and answers demonstrates the nature of the today’s testimony as well as anything could:

During the Joint Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, Senator Mary Caferro objected to the demeaning and dishonest claims of one witness, who asserted, without evidence, that:

“there are many people abusing the system…. Many people end up working fewer hours or just quitting so they can keep getting benefits. Some just lie about income or do not report it unless caught….There are many able-bodied adults simply relying on benefits that the taxpayer is providing….Can this continue without it being the downfall of our country?”

Far from being informational, the testimony today was designed give credibility to the kind of unfortunate talk one too often hears when people speculate about their neighbors on public assistance: mean-spirited attacks that have no place in the decision-making made by our Legislature. It was, as Senator Caferro noted, nothing more than a sham.

The Democratic Representatives and Senators who pushed back against these accusations today deserve credit. It’s unfortunate, but demonizing welfare recipients is an incredibly effective strategy, one that has been gamed by Republicans since Nixon. People generally badly overestimate the amount of fraud involved in programs designed to ensure a safety net for people living in poverty and tend to have an unnecessarily hostile and judgmental attitude towards recipients.

Everyone wants an efficient system for distributing government assistance and the reactionary Republicans certainly would find allies in efforts to increase efficiency of the state systems designed to distribute that aid and uncover problems with the computer systems that run them.If there are problems with the CHIMES system, the state should fix them. But that wasn’t the purpose of today’s sham hearing: its purpose was to traffic in stereotypes about the poor, present dishonest, hearsay “evidence” in support of those claims, and make a case against the expansion of Medicaid—simply because without specious claims like the ones made today, there is no moral, legal, or rational case against it.


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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a 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.


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  • Disgraceful conduct by Wittich, et al. Unprofessional conduct by the case workers.

    At the Washington Monthly last week, Ed Kilgore observed:

    “When it comes to today’s Republican Party, you should never, ever underestimate the raw power of ideology … Absent careful nudging and considerable education, many Republicans simply may not be able to help themselves when given an opportunity to hurt people by taking away government benefits. It’s kinda what some of them are in politics to do.”

    MT’s GOP radicals want not only to deny benefits to the needy, they want to frighten the needy into not applying for help (let them visit a soup kitchen). That’s what these hearing were about.

    Great post, Don.

  • Thank you for posting this. It’s appalling to think that the very people whose work involves getting taxpayer dollars into the hands of those who qualify for assistance approach their work with an attitude of suspicion, superiority, and shaming.

  • Apparently it’s a crime to use even the meager and inadequate publicly-funded healthcare we have. The real fraud is in the way that these services and “safety net” have been taken over an managed in such a way (often by outside “contractors” like the curren Xerox fiasco) as to “prove that socialism doesn’t work.” A lot of people can’t believe that the ACA was originally proposed by the Heritage Foundation and then implemented (by popular demand) by Mitt Romney in Mass. The reason that “conservatives” supported a plan like this had that very purpose – to further enslave and make dependent lower income people, and then to blame it all on “socialism”.
    I’ve been asking for the past 5 years or more why the SNAP cards are contracted out to, would you believe?, Northrop Grumman, for about 1/4 of the total amount spent. They do nothing but provide the snap cards and manage the money – for some $30million or more a year – those are old numbers, but I’ll bet the percentages haven’t changed much. The Medical information data-bank administering Medicare and Medicaid was projected to cost some $250 million, and I didn’t see any Democrats objecting to that, although they’ve been critical of the failures, like the Xerox deal. The whole problem is thinking of this as “welfare” or some kind of socialism. What needs to be made clear is that it’s a PUBLIC health care system, and as such, it should be immune from criticism as to who uses it or not. That’s the point of being public. It’s available to all, because we see how the present corporate, for-profit, “insurance model” of healthcare has bankrupted the country, and left us with the worst actual health care in the world (among richer and most poorer nations).

  • It is nothing new that we scope from our privileged perches and make assumptions that people who receive assistance are capable of obtaining the same privileges we received.

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