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We Feed Dead People

The Office of Legislative Audits posted a gem last week: 34 pages examining the checks and balances on the state's welfare overseers. You can find the whole thing here, but the highlight is this: Food stamps and welfare checks went out to hundreds of deceased recipients for several years. According to the audit, the state Department of Human Resources' Family Investment Administration distributed $488 million in benefits to the poor last year, including $105 million in cash and about $334 million in food stamps. Part of its job is checking beneficiaries to make sure they qualify for help. That means, mostly, matching the names, addresses, and Social Security numbers of welfare recipients against other databases—out-of-state residents, say, or prisoners, or government employees—who are decidedly not eligible for welfare in Maryland. Since 2002, these checks were supposed to be done every three months by the Department of Human Resources' Office of Inspector General—OIG for short. But the inspector general's office didn't do them. In fact, the auditors found, about 52,000 of more than 800,000 welfare recipients "lacked valid Social Security numbers." The OIG missed this potentially significant fact. The audit also reported the usual things they find in state government—paying contractors millions with no oversight, subcontractors hired without authorization, etc. But our favorite audit finding is finding 2: FIA did not detect that computer matches performed by the OIG improperly excluded about 92 percent of the active recipients. Keep in mind, this is the inspector general's office-- the agency's watchdog. They're supposed to be smarter than the everyday peons they police. The audit's bureaucratic abridgement obscures the plain reason that the OIG, when it checked at all, only checked eight percent of the files. But anyone who has ever used a popular spreadsheet program will instantly recognize the problem when they see the number of matches actually performed: 65,536 That is the total number of rows that Microsoft Excel can handle. Simply put, if you're trying to load a database with more than 65,536 rows, you need to use Access, the database program, not Excel, the spreadsheet program. Now, if you don't know this, Excel gives you a clue. Upon trying to load, say, an 812,048-row welfare file, Excel flashes the following error message: File not loaded completely. That should be your clue to rethink the process. OIG, however, did not rethink its process. For four years . . . until the state auditor came in. The auditor had OIG re-run the records, all of the records, against databases of people in jail, prison, or the hereafter. Not surprisingly, they got 20 times more "hits" than they had originally reported, increasing the number of flagged files (that's welfare payments and food stamps sent to dead people or people in prison) from 129 to 2,531.

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