A Caseworker’s View: “Intentional Program Violations” Cause More Harm than Good
By Parker Gilkesson
Before I came to CLASP, I worked as a frontline caseworker, meeting with people with low incomes to determine their eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, and Medicaid. Those experiences inform a new report I’ve written.
*Ring, Ring, Ring* My office phone rang loudly as I frantically finished documenting my previous customer’s case. I calmly answered—as if I had everything under control—when my supervisor said with a firm voice, “Come upstairs to my office Ms. Gilkesson. It’s urgent.” I began wracking my brain, wondering what she could want to discuss. I had completed all my cases and submitted them on time. What could be the problem? As I sat down, she immediately showed me her computer screen. My name popped up on a red queue of workers who committed an error that caused an overpayment. MY HEART SANK! This is the dreaded list because, depending on how bad the overpayment was, you could lose your job.
She showed me the name and my notes, and I distinctly remembered the case. It was a young lady who had recently reunited with her children and was applying for SNAP benefits for her family. As a caseworker, I always listened intently to my customers and their stories to ensure they received all of the resources they needed. I remember her excitement of finally getting her children back from her mother. Long story short, it turned out that one of the children was still a part of a TANF case with her mother (their grandmother). I missed seeing this in the state’s complicated and confusing computer system, the mother did not mention this when applying for SNAP, and the grandmother did not terminate the TANF case. Therefore, the agency launched an investigation into an overpayment. A simple misunderstanding that possibly cost a family their SNAP benefits and me a job.
I share this story because I know all too well how “program integrity” and fraud allegations affect the lives of recipients and caseworkers. As a caseworker, I saw that the system cared far more about catching people getting more than they were supposed to than about my ability to care for people and meet their needs. While empathetic care takes more time and effort, I was rewarded only for my timeliness and accuracy. The inability to recognize an overpayment, even if only once, could cost me my job.
Despite the rarity of fraud, federal and state legislators prioritize fraud prevention with millions of dollars in grants and targeted funding for “program integrity.” Eligibility workers are often better trained to look for fraud than they are to provide trauma-informed care or to refer families to other assistance to address the many challenges of living in poverty. Perversely, case workers can be penalized or jeopardize their jobs for accidentally approving recipients for more benefits than they are eligible for but face no repercussions for denying people benefits that they are eligible for.
I began to recognize how fear and stereotypes are used as powerful tools to maintain order without question. Agencies use harmful racist stereotypes to justify treating public benefits recipients unfairly. For instance, caseworkers who are ultimately trying to protect themselves and their jobs may profile customers and pry into their lives to find possible fraud. Most of my caseworkers and I began the work to help people and make the world a better place. But we found ourselves in a difficult place where the system we worked for positioned us as gatekeepers who meticulously guarded who we give access to, for fear of losing our jobs.
These experiences led me to write “SNAP “Program Integrity:” How Racialized Fraud Provisions Criminalize Hunger.” In it, I detail the difficulties, shame, and stigma that public benefits recipients have endured based on harmful stereotypes of people experiencing poverty. This dysfunction has ultimately led to a harmful fixation on program integrity and fraud in programs like SNAP, TANF, and Medicaid. Stigma and shame serve as a barrier to accessing benefits. That’s why it was important for me to detail the racialized history, policies, stereotypes, and administrative burden of “program integrity” and to recommend the changes necessary for the programs to better serve people.