Op-Ed: CT policy recovering welfare benefits from the dead damages poor families
On September 21, 2013, my mother, Shari Ellen Henne Richardson died, losing her life-long battle with addiction.
Throughout her life, my mother also struggled with money. It might be tempting to attribute my mother’s financial problems to her drug and alcohol abuse, but I balanced my mother’s checkbooks for years. Instead of seeing the money go to alcohol and drugs, I saw that she was paid too little, had too few health benefits and too many hospital bills, and did not have access to the public transportation she needed.
Unsurprisingly, my mother received temporary financial assistance from a number of state and federal programs. When I was a child, she was a member of WIC, received TANF, took part in the Jobs First Program, collected Food Stamps, and enrolled in SNAP. These temporary reliefs from poverty — along with the support of friends and family — helped us eat and afford rent.
While I am thankful that the State of Connecticut provided such safety nets in an attempt to put me on a socioeconomically level playing field with my peers, the state has policies that keep the children of addicts in poverty.
My mother and I did all we could to save money. To pay for gas and save for college, I worked both at Johnnie’s Dairy Bar in Middlebury and at Ayla’s Bagel and Deli in Woodbury. My mother regularly held more than one job at a time—she spent years commuting from Waterbury to her job at the Southbury Training School, a school for the mentally disabled, and cleaned houses on weekends.
Unfortunately, my mother’s addiction occasionally relapsed, and she returned to rehab. Addiction is a difficult health issue to cure, and copays and lost wages were financially strenuous. Furthermore, it is extraordinarily difficult to get insurance companies to pay for adequate care for those struggling with substance abuse; life-long addicts of serious drugs require many months of intense treatment, and it is cheaper for insurance companies to pay for two weeks to a month of rehab, let the addict relapse, and hope that the patient dies before returning for treatment.
Some addicts or their families are wealthy enough to afford adequate treatment, but my mother and I were not. Generous family members helped, but, as many readers might know, addiction is an obstinate disease that perennially resists treatment.
Before my mother died of an overdose, she had inherited a very modest sum of money from her husband’s death earlier that year. This, and her retirement account, left a larger estate than I expected – though nothing significant compared to other families. I am my mother’s only child and, since she was widowed, I was expecting to use this money to help pay off my student loans after I paid for the cremation and a humble service.
In plain English (because it was a bureaucratic mess), I had to apply to recover my mother’s estate because she had no will. I played by all of the rules, located all property and finances, and submitted the forms (with the help of family member) on time. This extremely stressful process all happened during my first semester of my Ph.D. program at Duke University.
As I waited months for banks and life insurance companies to comply with the Department of Administrative Services, I learned I would not be receiving any money from my mother’s estate; she owed it to the State of Connecticut.
In the early 1990’s, my mother received assistance under title 17, and Connecticut required her to pay it back. Specifically, the CT General Statute Chapter 57 Section 4a-16 gave the commissioner the ability to recover my mother’s estate.
While the federal government does not require this type of estate recovery, and while most states have time limits on estate recovery, the State of Connecticut had the authority to recover my mother’s assets after more than 25 years. Because my mother received financial assistance from Connecticut decades ago, I was left dealing with the expensive aftermath of my mother’s death without even the money she happened to leave me. I could not use the very small amount of money she had to pay for my college education.
There used to be limits on what the state could seize. In 1969, the state, for instance, increased the amount it could recover from $3,000 to $5,000. In 2009, the state raised the limit from $20,000 to the full value of the estate. Connecticut now has no limits on how much money it can recover from the loved ones of those who were financially assisted under certain programs that focused specifically on healthcare, addiction, and family support (in my mother’s case it was the Department of Developmental Services and the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services).
We hear a lot about the death tax on billion dollar estates, but no news outlets cover how Connecticut decided in 2009 to raise more revenue by seizing the full estates of some families in Connecticut – some of those who need the most help.
That Connecticut is able to recover money used to assist the impoverished completely turns on its head what we ought to expect from public assistance. My mother received assistance in part to raise herself and me out of poverty. Connecticut, moreover, wants me to be on equal footing with my peers who did not grow up below the poverty line; that is, Connecticut wants me to buy a house, pay taxes, and have children of my own. Letting my mother’s modest estate pass on to me would have gone a small way toward meeting those ends and fulfilling the goals of public assistance programs.
Government assistance should not be treated as a loan, and it usually is not —the government never asked my mother to repay these services while she was alive. If the system works, poor families will rise from poverty and contribute back to the social safety net through their taxes. If the system fails, families will stay in poverty.
This recovery effort then is either actively harmful for Connecticut families —because it is keeping the poorest families poor —or unnecessary because the families will have no estate to recover. Hence, some Connecticut assistance programs in conjunction with estate recovery allow the state to maintain the semblance of providing financial support to needy families without really providing it.
If we insist that the state should recover some assets to repay money spent on assistance for the needy, it is better to have a cap on how much a beneficiary can recover than to have a cap on how much Connecticut can. This policy would ensure that the loved ones of the recently deceased can get a base amount of financial support for one of the most difficult times of their lives, leaving Connecticut to recover anything extra. A policy like this one would help the worst off in the state while still letting the wildly successful contribute back some of their government assistance, hopefully lifting more needy families out of poverty.
I call on the Connecticut state senate to revise this CT General Statute Chapter 57 Section 4a-16, and set aside $50,000 for the beneficiaries of an estate, after the costs of funeral services and other expenses that follow the death of a loved one are accounted for. Only past this $50,000 should the state be able to recover any funds provided through state assistance programs.
That is, if a beneficiary of government assistance escapes poverty and accumulates some money, the family can keep enough of that money to make sure they are out of poverty for good. This way, the children of recipients of government assistance will be less likely to need assistance themselves.
There are other plausible revisions. For instance, the state might consider recovering the entirety of the state that is less than or equal to the debt for only what is over the median intestate estate for the age of the deceased in the previous year. That is technical, but I am not writing this stuff; I am just pointing out the moral and logical problems with this statute.
This issue is deeply personal to me: I lost my mothers estate, I am stuck with debt, and I am fighting other court battles. Nevertheless, I have been lucky enough to be moderately successful, to get paid to pursue my passions, to have a head for finances, to lack the addictions of my parents, to be healthy, and to have a number of supportive friends and family. I also have a number of contingent privileges. I am inordinately lucky.
I am not writing to recover my mother’s estate; I am writing to promulgate an unjust law.
There are people in my exact position who have not been as lucky as I have been. These people have to work even harder, with similar obstacles in their way, because of the state programs that are supposed to help them. These citizens and future citizens need this law changed.
Paul Henne of Waterbury is a Ph.D. student at Duke University.
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