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.