OPED: Separate fraud from true need

Edward B. Golla
Springettsbury Township

There are genuine poor people and there are professional beggars. Throughout history, it has been true that "the poor you shall always have with you."

Ed Golla

In America, there are also people who cheat on welfare, get food stamps that they really aren't eligible for, file false financial statements understating income and assets in order to get Pell grants and college subsidies. There are doctors who file false bills for Medicare and Medicaid payments, and hospitals and medical laboratories that do the same. There are able-bodied people collecting SSI disability pay for fictional "bad backs" and "nervous conditions."

There are people who cheat on bankruptcy proceedings, hiding assets from their creditors. There are those who don't pay their taxes and those who cheat on government contracts. There are hundreds of ways to defraud government programs, and there are thousands of people who will teach you how to do it while avoiding getting caught.

It is clear that every time a government program is created in order to help citizens who need assistance, a large cottage industry immediately grows up to get free handouts for folks who aren't supposed to be getting that assistance. If there is "free" government money, the cheats want it. Some are actually very wealthy. Some are just lazy.

A lot of decent American taxpayers are fed up with the cheating. Some cynically decide to stick their own hands into the pot to get "my share." Others conclude that the answer to the fraud problem is to simply eliminate all of the "handout" programs, even for the needy people for whom the programs were designed.

That seems harsh and cold-hearted. There is a whole political philosophy that seems dedicated to that idea of "starve the beast." That idea also starves the young, the needy, the weak, the helpless and the elderly. It stresses personal responsibility in a mean-spirited way.

That is not necessary. It is actually counterproductive. A better solution is to beef up the enforcement of the rules of the programs by spending more money to investigate and prosecute fraud. Unfortunately, every time government program funding is reduced, the first program area to be cut is enforcement and fraud detection.

In the 1960s, President Kennedy increased spending for federal fraud investigators. The results were exceptional; for every extra dollar spent on enforcement, the government recovered seven dollars from cheaters.

Everyone should accept personal responsibility to do without handouts if it is possible. But everyone who has ample or surplus also has personal responsibility to help others who need help. "Of him to whom much has been given, much is required."

Enforcement is based on a simple idea - no one should get "something for nothing" by cheating. "He who does not work, should not eat"; working Americans provide for those in actual need but get angry when lazy grifters line up to take advantage of taxpayer generosity and compassion.

It is not right for those who have more than plenty to deny help to those in need, but it is just and fair and necessary to detect and prosecute fakers and takers and phony beggars. Compassion is wasted on freeloaders. It should be reserved for those truly in need. Overall, catching cheaters is the best way to reduce government spending without causing harm to the most helpless.

— Ed Golla was a fraud investigator for the U.S. Treasury Department and the PA Bureau of Investigations.