JEFFERSON CITY — A state audit released Tuesday raised questions about whether hundreds of Missouri welfare recipients actually are living out of state or are using their benefits for alcohol, tobacco and gambling instead of their children.
The Associated Press
Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich identified about $722,000 of what he called “questionable transactions” out of $96 million in electronic card transactions in 2012 for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
That amounts to a mere fraction of a percent of the total dollar value of benefits examined by the auditor’s office, and Schweich said there’s no way of knowing for sure that the benefits were misused. But he said the questionable expenses “could be much more widespread” because auditors also had no way of catching people who cashed benefits at a Missouri bank and then spent them on inappropriate things.
“When you’re talking about at least $700,000 a year in questionable transactions, that really adds up over the years,” Schweich said. State officials need “better procedures in place to identify these, to follow up and then to collect the money back if they need to.”
The Missouri Department of Social Services said in a written response included in the audit that it is working with state computer personnel to develop an electronic system to identify potentially inappropriate or extended out-of-state use of welfare benefits. In the meantime, the department said it is performing manual reviews of transactions.
A department spokeswoman declined to make additional comments Tuesday beyond what was included in the audit.
House Speaker Tim Jones described the audit’s findings as “simply shocking.”
“Clearly, more must be done to prevent fraud and abuse in the TANF system, and we will make this a priority during the upcoming session,” Jones, a Eureka Republican, said in a written statement.
The joint federal and state program provided monthly payments to about 40,000 low-income Missouri families in the 2012 fiscal year.
The audit found 366 cases in which recipients used a total of $461,000 of benefits exclusively out of state for at least three months. Although nothing prohibits out-of-state use, the audit said that may indicate the recipients no longer lived in Missouri and thus should not have been getting the benefits.
The audit also found 1,615 cases in which recipients used a total of $261,000 of benefits at locations appearing to be associated with alcohol, tobacco, gambling or adult entertainment. Although not illegal at the time, new federal and state laws now prohibit the electronic benefit cards from being used at those places.