John O'Leary is a former GOVERNING contributor. He is co-author of "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government."E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
In this age of transparency, it's nice that the public can get a closer look at where their tax dollars are going. But when that information is delivered by the media, it can sometimes be a big, embarrassing dose of ugly, and it can also be a distorted picture.
Oh, for the good old days before transparency.
Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, the ATM-like debit cards that took the place of paper food stamp coupons in 2004, have prompted lot of media scutiny lately. In Arizona, this headline tells the tale: "Investigation finds tax dollars withdrawn at bars, liquor stores, strip clubs, casinos." Oh, and also on the beaches of Maui.
Buried somewhere down in the story is this: "The Department of Economic Security claimed only 1 percent of the money from the TANF programs was withdrawn from questionable ATMs during October, November and December of 2010."
It seems the media isn't interested in being fair. They want to sell newspapers, generate discussions on talk radio and drive traffic to websites. One surefire way to do that is to show recipients of aid blowing tax dollars on self-destructive indulgences.
Last fall, a Los Angeles Times headline blared, "$69 million in California welfare money drawn out of state" -- a whopping $11.8 million was spent in Las Vegas, and some $388,000 was accessed in Hawaii.
While EBT cards have enhanced transparency and helped officials get a glimpse into how recipients are spending their benefits, public outrage over the worst abuses, inflamed by the media, make it hard to have a rational conversation over the prevalence of abuse vs. legitimate use.
Here's a headline from Minnesota's KSTP Channel 5: Benefits Bonanza -- Taxpayers Foot Bill for Liquor, Travel, Tattoos. The report prompted public outrage. But a different look at the data from Minnesota Public Radio told a different story: Misuse of welfare money is minimal, data show.
As the article noted, even with EBT cards it is difficult to know how funds are being spent, since a cash withdrawal at say "Joe's Liquor" store doesn't necessarily mean that those funds are spent at Joe's or on liquor.
Still, fraud and abuse of public aid is a legitimate issue, and the idea that these programs may be doing more harm than good for some recipients is an argument that can't be dismissed lightly. It is perfectly reasonable to question the extent to which public assistance fosters a culture of dependency and promotes bad behavior.
But how much public aid really goes to gambling, booze, and tattoos? If the spate of sensational news stories were our only source of information, it would seem like quite a lot. After all, nobody writes stories about aid recipients who buy milk and bananas. Is this the only sort of transparency we can expect in a media-dominated culture?
Misuse of aid money is nothing new. In the bad old days, poverty workers reported recipients selling their food stamps for fifty cents on the dollar and buying drugs. Now, however, we just get a closer look at it thanks to data transparency. To the extent that this fuels efforts to rethink programs and cut down on fraud and abuse, terrific. To the extent it fuels paranoia, that's not so good.