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December 21. 2012 12:11AM

Welfare cheats now have one-week wait

MANCHESTER - Social service agencies across the city have posted notices in their waiting rooms to tell low-income residents that they will no longer lose access to city welfare money for six months if they lie on applications seeking assistance.

The notices went up earlier this month as part of an agreement between the city Welfare Department and New Hampshire Legal Assistance. In September, the New Hampshire Supreme Court struck down a city regulation that called for people who misrepresent their situation to lose access to welfare dollars for six months.

The agreement also calls for the Welfare Department to send notices to the 50 people who are under suspension for past violations. The department must advertise the notice every Friday in December in the New Hampshire Union Leader, and officials must ask aldermen to revise city guidelines to reflect the court ruling.

From now on, any applications containing a falsehood will be deemed in non-compliance and be ineligible for consideration for seven days, said Welfare Commissioner Paul Martineau. A second falsification would negate eligibility for 14 days.

"The irony of the thing is, you lie to the feds, they suspend for six months; you lie to the state, they suspend for six months. Yet here we are, local government, and we can't do it," Martineau said.

Elliot Berry, managing director of the Manchester office of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, said the change puts Manchester in line with state law and other municipal welfare offices across New Hampshire.

He said the city has a lengthy, eight-page application, and if someone misrepresents a minor fact, such as a $10 gift from a relative to put gas in a car, they would be ineligible for six months.

That's pretty harsh, he said, because city welfare is the last resort for a poor person, and it usually involves a one-time payment to cover emergency circumstances. State and federal programs entail long-term assistance.

"They make people jump through so many hoops," Berry said. "They call people whose parents are on Social Security and say 'what are you going to do to help?'"

Martineau said the application process is used to make sure people spend their money on necessities.

He said he's not sure what effect the ruling will have on his budget. He said the economy and unemployment have the biggest impact on the Welfare Department caseload.

Currently, 489 people come in each month to request assistance, he said. About one-third receive it. According to financial reports, the total amount of welfare assistance paid out by the city has fallen nearly every from 2002, when it was $1.59 million, to $293,000 in fiscal year 2011.

In the 2012 fiscal year, which ended on June 30, city welfare assistance increased slightly to $301,900.

Martineau said postings were sent to 40 social service offices. They state that six-month suspensions for not telling the truth are no longer valid, and anyone under suspension is free to re-apply at any time.

Berry said he doubts few of the 50 people under suspension would have received a notice by mail. Most requests to the Welfare Department are for rent, so if somone did not receive assistance, the person was probably evicted, he said.

"There is no where to go if local welfare denies you," Berry said.

He said he believes a number of things are coming together - including City Hall review of Welfare Department salaries and recent reporting about the office - to make Martineau and his staff reappraise how they run the office.

"I think they realize the public expects them to operate differently," Berry said.

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Mark Hayward may be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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