NC General Assembly building
Lawmakers return to Jones St. this week for the short legislative session. Photo credit Rose Hoban

A bill making its way through the legislature would require county social service workers to do criminal background checks on people applying for benefits.

By Rose Hoban

County social service workers may end up with one more task to check off as they register people for food stamps and welfare benefits: a criminal background check.

A bill that’s speeding its way through the General Assembly would require state Department of Social Services workers to submit an applicant’s information for a background check to see if that person has an outstanding arrest warrant.

Currently, all DSS workers are required to do is ask an applicant if they – or anyone else who would be on the receiving end of the benefits – currently have a warrant out against them.

The bill would require DSS workers to provide information such as address, phone number, Social Security number and a physical description of the applicant to law enforcement if the background check turns up an outstanding arrest warrant anywhere in the state.

“If we’re trying to save money, I can understand that,” said Rep. Nathan Baskerville (D-Henderson), who raised objections to the bill during a Health and Human Services committee meeting Tuesday morning. “I can understand if we’re trying to make sure that folks are not getting benefits who are not eligible for benefits, but I don’t think that this bill does that.”

“The way our state gives aid under [Temporary Aid for Needy Families], it’s a check, it’s cash,” said bill sponsor Rep. Dean Arp (R-Monroe). “The way it’s done now is simply asking, ‘Are you a felon?’”

Arp said he believes passing the bill would prevent the state from giving benefits to people who don’t deserve them, eventually saving money.

Outstanding warrants

Federal law says that if a person is evading the law, fleeing to avoid prosecution or breaking parole, then that person is not eligible to receive benefits. But Baskerville argued that this bill wouldn’t address that.

“That is different from having an outstanding warrant out for somebody,” he said. “Just because there is an outstanding warrant does not mean that that person is fleeing arrest and therefore ineligible for benefits.”

Baskerville, who’s an attorney, argued that people often don’t know that there’s a warrant out against them.

“It happens all the time,” he said. “There might be a warrant out for someone in their county of residence and they don’t know about it. A lot of times, the law-enforcement agencies – the police departments, the sheriffs departments — are handcuffed in terms of resources. So a warrant might be sitting idle.”

He also argued it’s too easy to issue a warrant for someone’s arrest – the process requires no evidence or corroboration. “It’s a very thin burden,” he said.

Arp admitted there was a chance that someone who deserves benefits might end up excluded from receiving benefits, but “there’s no reason not to do the right thing,” he said.

According to Durham Assistant County Manager Deborah Craig Ray, DSS workers do more than just take applicants’ word when they ask about felonies.

“Everything we take from them, we have to verify now,” Ray said. “Social security numbers, whatever is on the application, we have to inquire and verify before we can approve benefits. Having this new requirement is more time and money on our end.”

“The initial concern that we have is whether or not something like this would even be legal,” said David Atkinson, head of the state Association of County Directors of Social Services.

Currently, federal laws prevent the sharing of privileged information such as social security numbers and other identifying information. Atkinson said there is a good chance that if passed, the bill would be quickly mired in legal action.

“People are still innocent until proven guilty,” Baskerville said. “That still has to mean something.”

Who foots the bill?

“Once you resolve the legality of this bill, the next question is who picks up the tab,” said Atkinson, who added that counties are already struggling with cuts due to the federal sequester and reductions in the state budget.

He said he’s hearing from other county DSS directors about the expense of doing the background checks, something that would cost upwards of $30 per inquiry.

In Carteret County, where Atkinson is head of the county Department of Social Services, at least 8,000 heads of households receive some form of federal benefits. Most of those people live in households with two to five people.

“Even if we got our best deal of paying 30 to 35 dollars per background check, you’re looking at a minimum of a quarter of a million dollars to do checks on all of those recipients,” Atkinson said.

In bigger counties, that number would add up quickly: Across the state, more than 1.8 million people receive federal benefits such as food stamps or TANF.

“If it’s something that we have to do tomorrow that we’re not doing today and no money comes with it, then I would say it’s an unfunded mandate,” said Ray.

Durham County is doing better than many in terms of unemployment and income, but Ray said her county continues to face a number of issues.

“We’re not Cleveland County, with double-digit unemployment, but we fund other services such as education and we have other bills to pay. The recession has hit all the counties across the state. It’s getting better, but it’s still below expectations.”

I don’t think anyone has that kind of cash to spare,” Ray said.

“Pushing something of this magnitude to the local level,” Atkinson said, “would be unthinkable.”

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...

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