Killing a myth: Being poor in Utah is no way to get rich

Aug 15 2011 - 11:21pm

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Today I am foolishly going to try to kill the urban myth that people, especially those here illegally, get rich on welfare.

Why foolishly? Urban myths have more lives than cats. But, since even reasonable people get taken in by them, we must try.

I was prompted by a version of this myth that showed up via email last week: A pregnant woman supposedly told an Illinois hospital she has seven kids and is "the breadwinner of the family" because, as kids pop out, her live-in mother takes them on as foster children.

Illinois pays grandma $1,500 a month per foster kid, so the family collects $144,000 a year plus Medicaid, free groceries and other goodies.

"This is how the ruling class spends our money!" the note angrily ends.

Not true. The story originated with a doctor in Illinois who heard it from another doctor. "I heard it from someone" is the classic sign of an urban myth.

An Internet watchdog group, Factcheck.org, called Illinois, which said (a) no such foster case exists and (b) even if it did, the maximum a family with eight kids could collect in foster care is $47,000 a year, not $144,000.

But that's Illinois. Is this possible in Utah?

No. A Utah family fostering eight preschool kids gets $40,880.

Utah's Department of Workforce Services spokesman Curt Stewart said for grandma to foster her grandchildren in Utah, grandma must qualify under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families' "specified relative" program, not the normal foster program.

Assuming grandma qualifies -- they do evaluations -- she collects $288 per month for one grandchild and about $100 for each additional.

Plus, grandma "must report the names of the parents when she signs up. The Office of Recovery Services then goes after those parents to recover that $288."

So grandma collects, mom pays back. Net taxpayer cost: zero.

But mom can keep her kids, collect welfare and take life easy, right?

No. "Welfare" no longer exists. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is the current program, and they do mean temporary.

Stewart said a client on TANF must, by law, "be engaged in some type of program that will result in employment," whether training, internship, school, whatever.

Mom better find work. "After three years, that's the end of it (TANF) and that's lifetime," he said.

What about other freebies?

Medicaid is available, but clients have to be poor and, critically, "they have to be legal," just as they must for every service provided by Utah.

"We have very strict eligibility criteria for that, and we cross check all of the information on the application with the Social Security database," Stewart said.

Free food? The average food stamp allotment in Utah is $310 a month for 2.5 people. That's $10 a day to feed a family of three.

Now, before you write: I am aware you know a woman here illegally who says she's a single mom but her husband is really here. Even so, she signed up her children born in this country for aid.

Or, I know you've seen someone buy beer and use food stamps to buy steak.

No system can prevent all fraud. No system can make people spend money wisely.

We need to fight real problems, not mythical ones.

TANF, however temporary, helps real people. Using mythical cases to attack it is wrong, and people getting rich on welfare is a myth.

If you do know someone who is abusing the system, don't call me. Call 1-800-955-2210 and turn them in.

Wasatch Rambler is the opinion of Charles Trentelman. You can call him at 801-625-4232 or email ctrentelman@standard.net. He also blogs at www.standard.net.

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