Another Way to Police the Poor
By Kalena Thomhave | Mar 11, 2019
On Monday, The New York Times reported that the federal government was exploring ways to use social media to crack down on instances of disability fraud, even as applications for disability benefits fall.
This is not the first time that the government has looked to social media to investigate welfare fraud—in fact, such an intrusion of privacy is actually quite key to the history of public assistance programs. Back in the 1960s, welfare officials would regularly make unannounced home visits (sometimes even “midnight raids”) to women receiving traditional cash benefits to see if they lived in accordance with welfare eligibility rules. If there was, for example, evidence of a “man in the house” (no matter the casualness of the relationship), the woman would be denied her benefits.
While raids and inspections like these have generally been ruled unconstitutional, the state has turned to the internet to regulate the poor. It’s not uncommon for state governments to scan social media for instances of “welfare fraud,” which is, it is necessary to note, exceedingly rare.
The Department of Social and Health Services in Washington state is very clear on its website that it “focus[es] on the use of social media to identify EBT card misuse.” What they likely mean is that extremely poor people will often try to sell their measly food stamp funds—which can only be used to purchase food—in order to get a smaller amount of cash. This investigative program is operated by a federal grant that created a partnership between the federal Office of Family Assistance and law enforcement “to hire additional investigators and carry out online sting operations.” Indeed, Washington’s DSHS even celebrated the arrest of someone trying to trade their drugs for EBT funds. The agency’s press release began ominously, “Note to would-be food benefits traffickers. You’re being watched.”
Even the most progressive of local governments—like that of the District of Columbia—devote substantial attention and resources to cracking down on the ever-elusive welfare fraud. The reason that “program integrity”—the fancy way to talk about fraud—is such a priority even for progressives is so that they can pre-empt conservative arguments about people who use welfare who are seen as undeserving. (I would argue that’s not a battle that can be won.)
The federal government scanning disability recipients’ social media goes a step further than checking Craigslist or the Facebook marketplace. Under the new plan that the administration is developing, federal officials would look for evidence on personal social media pages to determine whether a person receiving disability insurance is disabled. Distasteful as the proposal is, it is also ridiculous—not to mention offensive—to assume that disability (especially mental illness) can be so easily detected.
“Just because someone posted a photograph of them golfing or going fishing in February of 2019 does not mean that the activity occurred in 2019,” Lisa D. Ekman, chairwoman of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, told the Times. And regardless, the experience of disability is so varied and personal it should not be up to the government to decide whether a person is or is not actually disabled enough for them to work. Laughably, the Trump administration pointed to telework—which some of its agencies are actively reducing—as a reason that fewer people should receive disability benefits. (Telework, of course, is not a possibility in every job—especially low-wage jobs.)
The dichotomy between those who are deserving and undeserving of public benefits, with the government as arbiter, lies at the foundation of the American social safety net. The plan to police personal social media accounts is an invasion of privacy—but it’s nothing that low-income people haven’t always experienced.