Some North Carolina legislators agreed Tuesday to require county social service workers to perform criminal background checks on people seeking welfare and food stamps.
The House Health and Human Services Committee voted to make the checks mandatory in all county Department of Social Services offices for people applying for the benefits or for renewing their application to keep receiving them. The DSS office also would have to tell law enforcement agencies if an applicant is a fugitive or is wanted on an outstanding warrant.
DSS offices can now perform the formal background checks if they wish, or they can simply ask the participant if he or she is in trouble with the law. Federal law prohibits people who are subject to arrest warrants for violating probation or parole or for a felony charge from receiving public assistance benefits.
Food and Nutrition Services, the formal term for food stamps, provides debit cards to low-income families. Work First -- North Carolina’s welfare program, which is paid through the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families -- provides cash assistance and job training.
“We absolutely have to make sure our aid goes to law-abiding citizens first,” said state Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, one of the bill’s primary sponsors. “This is a reasonable provision to ensure that.”
In Union County, Arp said, officials at the county DSS office were told they could no longer provide criminal information to sheriff’s deputies because of confidentiality restrictions.
“It’s outrageous to think that our current law could even be interpreted to say that DSS cannot notify law enforcement,” said Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham.
But some speakers at the committee meeting questioned who would pay for the criminal background checks and whether the legislation would require all current recipients to be scrutinized, two valid concerns.
There were nearly 822,000 people benefiting from food stamps in North Carolina during February while the Work First caseload was about 21,400 in March, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Services.
“Right now, the county (DSS offices) are just strapped. We can’t afford another unfunded mandate,” said Lori Ann Harris, a lobbyist representing the North Carolina Association of County Directors of Social Services. Harris said she received information that criminal history checks cost $38 apiece.
Some social service workers say they are worried about turning in personal information — including Social Security numbers and physical descriptions — about applicants who came to their offices for help but were in trouble with the law, Harris said.
“If people think they’re going to be punished or arrested for even coming to seek our services, then that’s a big concern for us,” she said. “We look to be friendly, not adversarial.”
Julie Henry, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday evening in an email that agency officials were looking at the issue addressed in the bill and gathering information from the federal government.
Arp said a fiscal review of the measure by the General Assembly’s research staff said the bill’s cost to local governments is unclear. He said the situation will create a safer environment because officials will know who is coming through their doors.
Rep. Nathan Baskerville, D-Vance, told Arp he’s worried someone could harm a person’s qualifications to receive benefits simply by going to a magistrate’s office and taking out a warrant against them even though the allegations are a paper tiger.
However, applicants with outstanding warrants can still qualify for benefits once they are no longer subject to arrest. Benefit eligibility by other people in the applicant’s household wouldn’t be affected by the applicant’s criminal status, the bill says.
Still, Arp acknowledged criminal warrants can be abused, but added that it’s “no reason not to do the right thing.”
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The AP contributed to this report. Featured image Getty Images.