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Social safety net eats up 42% of state budget – No. 1 in the nation

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(The Center Square) — The number of Pennsylvanians receiving food stamps and Medicaid has ballooned compared to a generation ago.

Some experts warn the result is a welfare system vulnerable to waste, fraud, and abuse — some of it “by design.”

“There’s a recognition that there needs to be a social safety net, but whether or not that net is actually working is another matter,” Rep. Josh Kail, R-Beaver, said Wednesday during a House GOP Policy Committee hearing in Williamsport. “It’s something we have to be willing to test and trust … At the end of the day, it’s not our money to play with or give out — it’s taxpayer dollars and we need to make sure they are spent in the right way.”

That responsibility has grown. In 2000, Pennsylvania had 760,000 residents getting food stamps. Now, almost 2 million receive them. Growth in Medicaid has been similar: The state spend $10.7 billion on 1.3 million residents in 2000, but now, the state spends almost $47 billion to provide Medicaid benefits to 3.3 million residents.

Welfare expansion has outpaced population growth: Pennsylvania has only gained 700,000 residents since 2000. But the state budget is dominated by this spending that runs through the Department of Human Services.

“Human services’ line items accounts for 42% of our state budget — $19.1 billion,” Rep. Joe Hamm, R-Mountoursville, said. “We’re seeing about a 5.2% growth year-over-year in human services, nearly $1 billion a year. The federal government matches those numbers almost a 50/50 split, so we’re getting nearly $19 billion from the federal government in these programs. “If we have accountability and integrity in our benefit programs, there’s gonna be more money for those who truly need it.”

Though human services eat up a significant chunk of all state budgets, the commonwealth stands out: Pennsylvania’s Medicaid expenditures as a percentage of its budget is the highest in the nation, according to an analysis from the Foundation for Government Accountability.

“You can understand the impact this has: Medicaid is gobbling up more and more of your budget every year and it ties up funding for public safety, schools, roads, and the truly needy,” Sam Adelson, policy director at the FGA, said.

And almost half of Pennsylvania’s dependents on Medicaid, he argued, were able-bodied adults.

“When able-bodied adults have taken over your program, there’s not gonna be anything left for the truly needy … and that’s why we fight fraud,” Adelson said. “As welfare has expanded, workforce participation has dropped … it’s keeping them out of work.”

Adelson called it “fraud by design” when recipients could get in the Medicaid program before the state verified eligibility. Meanwhile, 14,000 people with intellectual and physical disabilities remain on a waiting list for resources.

“Thats how you get this robbery of this safety net,” he said. “If you’re stopping fraud and saving money, it’s to protect these folks and taxpayers.”

Roy Leonardson, state government affairs director for the FGA, told lawmakers to look at states that have made reforms, like Georgia, Tennessee, Kansas, Florida, and North Carolina.

“These reforms work, you’re not alone,” he said. “These aren’t just states — this is your competition … A strong workforce makes your job a lot easier when trying to attract new businesses.”

He argued other changes, like cleaning up Pennsylvania’s administrative code, would encourage economic growth and shore up the safety net. Exercising legislative power, too, is necessary.

“Take back control; you’re the only person that folks in your district have to oversee government and to hold it accountable,” Leonardson said. “Preserving benefit integrity starts with the legislature holding them accountable for that integrity … if it’s not you, it’s no one.”

Adelson echoed the importance of legislators taking responsibility, encouraging them not to let policy get created without the oversight of the General Assembly.

“The most sympathetic, charitable thing you can do is say, we’ll give you a benefit, but in exchange, you need to show up Monday at this job training,” Adelson said. “There’s plenty of opportunity out there. To me, it starts with the requirement to help get them along on their way.”

Legislators agreed that the goal of government assistance programs should be to avoid permanent reliance on them by the able-bodied.

“We gotta make sure we’re putting Pennsylvanians in the best position possible to achieve financial independence — and not dependence on the government,” Hamm said.