If you read the Which Lazy Bastards Are Ripping You Off section of yesterday’s tabloids — you can find it after the Who Is Sandra Bullock Not Sleeping With/Adopting section — you may have spotted the story that the Post headlined “Millionaires’ welfare ‘con’ “: The Brooklyn DA’s office was prosecuting 32 New Yorkers for receiving nearly $1 million in welfare benefits they weren’t entitled to. The Post zeroed in on a couple of landlords with “three luxury vehicles” who’d lied about their assets to get taxpayer cash; for NY1, the hook was a married Brooks Brothers employee who claimed to be a single mom on her application, raking in $460,000.
Only one problem with the headlines (and Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes’ press release that started the whole thing): Welfare benefits — aka public assistance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or whatever the government is calling the cash it allots to poor people to use for expenses other than food and medical care — turn out not to be involved at all. A call to Hynes’ office confirms that all of the indictments handed down on Tuesday were for Medicaid fraud, with a handful tacking on phony food stamp applications as well; as a Hynes spokesperson curtly explained in an e-mail: “None of them stole from Public Assistance.”
(The Daily News actually got this right in the headline, then led with: “Meet welfare’s new king and queen.”)
Okay, welfare, Medicaid — does the terminology really matter, so long as these were crooks ripping off the public till by posing as poor? Absolutely, says Liz Accles, policy analyst for the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies and coordinator of the group’s Access to Assistance campaign.
On top of being “flat-out inaccurate,” Accles says, headlines like these have real-world implications for the city’s poor. “It means harsher treatment for people that need assistance,” says Accles. “It feeds into the false perception that there are high levels of fraud in welfare, which makes it that much more permissible for the city to treat people extraordinarily harshly.” Already, she notes, anyone in the city who applies for welfare (but not Medicaid) has to undergo a “guilty until proven innocent” fraud investigation called Eligibility Verification Review — something that FPWA has previously charged helps needlessly deny benefits to the legitimately poor.
And the tabloids’ welfare illiteracy gets worse: The individuals indicted by Hynes were “charged with ripping off a total of $1 million in welfare benefits from the city,” wrote the Post, implying that New York City’s budget woes are being directly exacerbated by people taking advantage of the government’s largesse toward the poor. Actually, no: Half of Medicaid costs are actually paid for by the federal government, and another quarter by Albany — meaning if anyone has a right to feel ripped off, it’s taxpayers in the rest of the U.S., who footed most of the bill without even getting the benefit of the ill-gotten gains being spent in their communities.
To be fair, reporters’ jobs weren’t made any easier by Hynes’ press release, in which the DA fulminated: “The city’s Human Resources Administration is not there for the personal enrichment of financially secure families who would rather not pay for their own health insurance or groceries, and it is certainly not designed to help drug dealers obtain cheap narcotics. All these scams and schemes significantly reduce the available funds for those who actually need public assistance.” Still, there’s nothing stopping journalists from actually reality-checking press releases before printing them in the paper — or at least that’s what they taught us in stenography school.