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One in Five Rhode Islanders on Public Assistance

Thursday, October 25, 2012


At least one fifth of Rhode Islanders receive some form of public assistance, including housing, health care, food stamps, and cash assistance, according to figures collected from several state departments and federal agencies by GoLocalProv.

Welfare, strictly defined as direct cash payments, benefits a small slice of the population, about 22,000 individuals. But when all forms of public assistance are included, the number balloons to at least two hundred thousand.

By far, the largest public assistance program is Rhode Island Medicaid, with 199,199 eligible residents in August 2012 and $1.6 billion budgeted for medical benefits in the current fiscal year.

Other key programs include:

■ Food Stamps: As of last August, 175,000 Rhode Islanders were on food stamps, technically known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Total cost of benefits paid out: $24 million.

■ State Medicaid: The main state Medicaid program, RIte Care, had a core enrollment of 117,000 as of August and an expected cost of $595 million this year.

■ Social Security SSI: Unlike retirement and disability benefits, Supplemental Security Income is a function of need, rather than contributions by beneficiaries, and is paid out of general revenues, rather than the Social Security Trust Fund. As of December 2011, 32,000 Rhode Islanders were on Social Security SSI at an estimated annual cost of $205 million.

 ■ Public Housing: About 20,000 local families received some form of public housing assistance in 2012, at a total cost of $123 million, according to figures provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In all, the total estimated annual cost of public assistance in Rhode Island is currently $2.3 billion. (See below table for more information.)

One third of U.S. on government assistance

The total number of Rhode Islanders who depend on public assistance, however, cannot be determined on the basis of the data provided because the enrollment numbers for one program may overlap with another. For example, many of the Rhode Islanders who receive food stamps may also be enrolled in a state Medicaid program.

But it is apparent from the enrollment figures that at least 19 percent, or, on average one in five Rhode Islanders is on one or more public assistance programs.

“It doesn’t surprise me that that many Rhode Islanders qualify, given how miserable the economy is,” said Ken Block, a businessman and prominent advocate of efficiency in government services who ran for Governor as the Moderate Party candidate in 2010.

U.S. Census figures offer some clue as to what the actual total may be in Rhode Island. Overall, about 107 million Americans, a third of the total population, receive public assistance, according to the Census figures, which were not available in a state-by-state breakdown.

 Food stamp program increases faster in RI than US

Many of the state public assistance programs have seen slight increases, but the most significant is in food stamps, reflecting a nationwide trend, according to David Burnett, the associate director of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which oversees the bulk of the state-run public assistance programs.

Nationwide, the number of Americans on food stamps has increased by 3.2 percent over the last year. In Rhode Island, the rate of increase is double that, at 6.4 percent, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Burnett said the economy was the main factor behind the increase. He suggested that the upward trend in food stamp enrollment reflects the rising unemployment rate.

Bad economy taxes welfare system

The number of Rhode Island on public assistance should be cause for concern, said House Minority Leader Brian Newberry.

“In a society when you reach the point where too many people are on public assistance, you run out of people who can pay for it,” said Newberry, R-North Smithfield.

But economist Leonard Lardaro said the number of enrollees in public assistance is not as large as the public may think. He said the welfare reforms enacted under Gov. Don Carcieri have likely reduced the number of people who would otherwise be on public assistance. “The old stereotypes of Rhode Island are probably not as valid as they were in the past,” said Lardaro, who teaches at the University of Rhode Island.

He said public assistance enrollments will fluctuate, depending upon economic conditions and demographic factors, such as age and health needs.

“The number of people on public assistance is not just some God-given number,” Lardaro said. “When an economy is not doing that well more people will qualify for public assistance. That’s just the way the system is built … but, when the economy improves, fewer people will qualify and so it would automatically come down.”

Rep Joseph McNamara, who chairs the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee, said those on food stamps don’t fit the usual stereotypes, especially in rough economic times. “These aren’t people that are sitting around drinking six packs and smoking cigarettes,” said McNamara, D-Warwick. “These are people that are working.”

He said food stamps are going to Rhode Islanders who are underemployed and barely earn enough to maintain their mortgages and provide for their families. “Food stamps are enabling these folks to stay in their home and, in some cases, get training for better employment,” McNamara said.

He suggested that there shouldn’t be a stigma against receiving food stamps, invoking a quotation from Muhammad Ali—Inside of a ring or out, ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s wrong. “Many Rhode Islanders have been knocked down by the economy and programs like food stamps … enable them to get back up,” McNamara said.

State to launch new fraud unit

Health and Human Services Secretary Steven Costantino is committed to making changes that will increase accountability and transparency for the some two dozen public assistance programs that fall under his jurisdiction, Burnett said.

He said Costantino plans on putting more information about state public assistance programs online, with details on the number of residents served and the corresponding costs. He said state officials are also working on calculations on the total number of Rhode Islanders on public assistance—although the results were not available in time for publication.

The Executive Office of Health and Human Services also is in the process of setting up a new unit that targets fraud, waste, and abuse. “It’s incredibly important that the integrity of these programs be protected,” Burnett said, adding that it doesn’t help the people they serve if there’s a perception that there is fraud and abuse in those programs and that the money spent on them is therefore a waste.

Nationwide, states started paying more attention to waste and fraud in food stamps and Medicaid, Burnett said, but the new unit in Rhode Island will not be limited two just those two areas, examining all the health and human service programs in the state. Members of the unit will not be field investigators. Instead they will use sophisticated data mining tools to identify patterns of unusual behavior, questionable purchases, and unusual billing by third parties.

The unit will also be working with Block, who has been volunteering his services to help the state identify potential waste and fraud in its food stamp program. (Block declined to discuss specifics of his work for the state yesterday, citing a confidentiality clause in his contract with the state.)

The unit’s findings will be used to tighten oversight of the programs with the goal of delivering better benefits to individuals in need. And, if circumstances warrant, the unit may turn over information on potential cases of criminal fraud and abuse to the appropriate law enforcement authorities, including the Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control and Patient Abuse Unit, Burnett said.

The unit, formally known as the Office of Program Monitoring, will have a five-person staff with an annual budget of $150,000 for this, its first year of operation. (The allocation accounts for the fact that the unit will not be fully staffed at the beginning of the year.)

The new unit was part of the Governor’s original budget submission and made it into the final budget that passed the General Assembly. Burnett said his office plans to report to the General Assembly on its progress on investigating waste and fraud during the next session, although there is no fixed deadline for doing so.

Asked how much fraud the state suspects there is, Burnett indicated that state officials aren’t sure, but he cited national studies showing that generally 2 percent of Medicaid funds are fraudulently spent.

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I'm going to make sure that we get people off of food stamps, not by cutting the program, but by getting them good jobs.- Romney

Comment #1 by anthony sionni on 2012 10 25

"The median hourly wage grew by just 33 cents from 2000-2010, from $16.65 to $16.98. Rhode Island had the third lowest median wage in New England by 2010, with Connecticut leading the region at $19.97. The national median wage was $16.00.
The increase in the median wage in Rhode Island from 2000-2010 was the smallest in the region at just 2 percent. The largest increase was in Massachusetts, where the median wage rose 11 percent, from $17.84 to $19.83…..
As the national conversation centers around unemployment and jobs, we must not forget that those who are employed have struggled with stagnant wages and income, while the cost of living continues to climb."

Comment #2 by Daniel Dupuis on 2012 10 25

Why are these the only forms of public assistance on the list? Why not the mortgage tax deduction? Why not subsidized student loans? Why not the lower tax rates paid on capital gains?

Stephen Bile and the right wing spin machine he is a sprong in is a disservice to GoLocal

Comment #3 by Malachi Constant on 2012 10 25

There is no incentive for government to police welfare programs. Indeed, the more welfare distributed, the more government needed to administer programs, the more the Party of Government – Democrats – benefits. Meanwhile, generations of recipients lose their dignity and are enslaved by government benefits.

Herbert Stein's Law states, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Welfare will stop by itself. No need for intervention because the number of taxpayers declines every year while the number of tax-takers increases. Eventually, politicians will run out of other peoples’ money to spend on welfare programs. Austerity measures will arrive. If you don’t believe me, just ask the Greeks.

Comment #4 by Christopher Lee on 2012 10 25

Keep in mind too, that as more people find themselves dependent on the government, more unionized government workers will be needed to provide for their needs. Like the department of labor and training, more unemployment, means more unionized workers. So, whats bad for the economy is good for democrats.

Comment #5 by David Beagle on 2012 10 25

This is an extremely sore subject with me. I know too many people who collect some form of govt assistance, or more than one, and absolutely refuse to get off their azzes and get a job. Some have been receiving assistance for years, and even decades!! If they got a job, their fear is that they’d lose their assistance.

This is absolutely disgusting, and this is what our government has created.

Limit govt. assistance to a short period of time, to force people back to work.
I pay waaaaaaay too much in taxes, to see it go to these types of deadbeats. Assistance is supposed to be assistance, not a lifestyle.

Comment #6 by pearl fanch on 2012 10 25

Malachi Constant / 7:53am on Thursday, October 25, 2012

Why are these the only forms of public assistance on the list? Why not the mortgage tax deduction? Why not subsidized student loans? Why not the lower tax rates paid on capital gains?

Stephen Bile and the right wing spin machine he is a sprong in is a disservice to GoLocal

Mortgage Tax deduction means you pay less taxes - not that you take from other people

Subsidized Student loans - again you are paying less interest for these loans and not taking money from the government

Lower Capital Gains tax rates paid is self explanatory - One is paying less taxes (but atill paying into the government so welfare recipients can get money) and not taking from the government

The government has no money to give unless it forcibly takes it from the people, so when there is a welfare system in place, the government demands that working people give up a portion of their pay to support others - as a saftey net, welfare is ok as many have hard times, but as a way of life, it is wrong and many have found "working the system" for unearned benefits a nice way to live

Comment #7 by Raymond McKay on 2012 10 25

"Why not the lower tax rates paid on capital gains?" asks Malachi,

because there is no such lower rate for RI state income tax purposes. All capital gains are deemed short term, hence subject to ordinary income tax rates. This has been law in RI for several years.

Comment #8 by Kevin McCarthy on 2012 10 25

does that number one in five include politicians

Comment #9 by Howard Miller on 2012 10 25

To Malachi...

Allowing people to keep what they've EARNED is not a subsidy!

You are the spin meister.

Comment #10 by Joe Richer on 2012 10 25

Stephen Beale, do you mean 107,000,000 Americans? Rather than "107,000" Americans?

Comment #11 by Michael Roles on 2012 10 25

Pretty much as expected in RI; with no leadership from the Governor or the GA to develop employment by making it attractive for small business to set up shop in RI, just puts us in a tail spin.
Jobs have always been the answer to shrinking the support systems, yet this state has NOT taken any proactive approaches to make a positive change in how we attract small business.
Instead the state makes a business out of managing multiple government assistance programs. The state of RI acts, thinks and is a welfare state. Until we get real leadership we will stay mired in the pits of despair.
Perhaps Ken Block from the Moderate Party will be a blessing with his fraud busting Software Company. We need new independent thinking leaders, show us the way Ken.

Comment #12 by Gary Arnold on 2012 10 25

RI is a Democrat/neo-Commie experiment. Which FAILED. The short-term solution??? Vote for Republicans all day long.

Comment #13 by Jeremy Soninjer on 2012 10 25

People need the taxpayers to cover their need for food, shelter and medical care. Wall St. needs taxpayers to cover bad loans fostered by the banking system’s lack of integrity and and short-term greed. These immoral Wall St. traits decimated the wealth of middleclass homeowners, and caused a recession that seems endless. Why do we only read about the “welfare” costs for the poor, and not the banks’ $700 billion dollar welfare cost? Simple, no one wants to admit that socialism (state welfare) was needed to save our “free-market” banking system. How did the “banksters” force congress to move so swiftly on the banking system bailout? Easy, Wall St. said: “if you don’t bail us out you are going to lose a ton of money on your investments.” So the next time someone starts ranting about the cost of “welfare” for the poor, ask them: “why is socialism (state welfare) good for the 1%, but bad for the poor?” Better still, tell them to ask the poor, the ones we send to war to be killed defending a false image of “capitalist, free market system”. A corrupt capitalist system that is so morally weak it needs state welfare to survive.

Comment #14 by Charles Marsh on 2012 10 25

I believe economist Lardaro a hundredfold, before I would ever believe Brian Newberry, another lawyer in the GA (who,like the other lawyers especially those in the Gen Assembly leadership positions who never even gave up their 3.2% raise as they make their 6 figure lawyer salaries, more than most Rhode Islanders make, ) has his own agenda. And being in the news during election season helps, doesn't it?
The professor has no agenda. And he disagrees with Brian Newberry's interpretation. This is what he says:
Economist Leonard Lardaro said the number of enrollees in public assistance is not as large as the public may think. He said the welfare reforms enacted under Gov.Carcieri have likely reduced the number of people who would otherwise be on public assistance. “The old stereotypes of Rhode Island are probably not as valid as they were in the past,” said Lardaro, who teaches at the University of Rhode Island.
We need to stop spending and we need to stop taxes. Tell me why the GA voted for taxes on taxi cabs, pet grooming but they never put a tax on the yachts, yet the millionaires with yachts moored in Newport pay no tax? (RI repealed such laws in 1993.)
Millionaire John Kerry moors his 7 million dollar yacht in Newport...this allows him to avoid paying roughly $500,000 in taxes to MA.
This makes RI a nautical tax haven.
There is something wrong here...Here is a source of money that Paiva Weed is not utilizing and I don't see any other lawmaker, including Newberry using this as a source for revenue. Is this because the GA politicians have friends like Sen Kerry with yachts that they don't want taxed?
Yet, you tax a dog groomer? You tax the poor taxi cab driver? What a slap in the face to the middle class person who goes to the groomer or who might need the services of a cab...such flamboyant injustice but then again this is what happens when you have the politicians catering to the wealthy...Vote them all out on Nov 6th.

Comment #15 by dis gusted on 2012 10 25

and by the way the GA got rid of itemization on your state income taxes...You cannot claim house mortgage interest or health costs
you accumulate and other things as well. This is another tax...
Where was the outrage when this occurred 2 years ago?
There are so many laws passed that the general public is not even aware of until it is too late..These laws hurt middle class.
Time to change the make up of the Assembly. Vote for new people...
new faces...new ideas...It cna;t get any worse....

Comment #16 by dis gusted on 2012 10 25

Get a job already. www.RIJobFinder.com

Comment #17 by Captain Blacksocks on 2012 10 25

To Malachi,

So as a marxist, are you suggesting that working Americans who already work about 4 months per year just to pay for non-working Americans should up that effort to about 6-8 months a year? That's nuts. Let people who earn the money keep more of it, not less of it. You want us to be like Greece, Spain, Italy and other disaster economies?

Comment #18 by Captain Blacksocks on 2012 10 25

To Charles Marsh,

Wall Street didn't cause the economic crisis. That is how the left wing likes to re-write history. The economic collapse is actually rooted in the foolish decisions of Bill Clinton, Barney Frank and their cronies who felt banks should be pressured into lending to anyone who wanted a mortage, regardless of ability to repay the loan. All the rest that happened after that came from the orginal poor democratic policies. Wall St made it worse by packaging the loans, but Clinton invented the whole mess.

Comment #19 by Captain Blacksocks on 2012 10 25

Malachi Constant - I used the same criteria as the U.S. Census Bureau, I hardly think they would be considered "right wing."


Comment #20 by Stephen Beale on 2012 10 25

But wait, there's more!

What about the vast government bureaucracy required to administer the programs?

How many millions more are required for that?

Comment #21 by Art West on 2012 10 26

well that's 1 in 5 solid Democrat voters

Comment #22 by Odd Job on 2012 10 26

How many of these "1 in 5" people are illegal aliens??? DO we have any stats on that??

Comment #23 by Donna C on 2012 10 26

Corporate welfare is no more beneficial to society than personal welfare is.

Both lead to dependency and political corruption and must be limited to the greatest extent possible. Workfare a la FDR is preferable.

Comment #24 by Joe Richer on 2012 10 26

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.