Welfare can be any one of a number of government assistance programs designed to help individuals and families who are experiencing financial difficulties. The basic idea behind these programs is to help people struggling to pay for basic needs, such as food, shelter and medical assistance.

Some of the U.S. federally-funded welfare programs include the following:

  • Earned Income Tax Credit;
  • Housing Assistance;
  • Medicaid;
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the Food Stamp Program);
  • Supplemental Security Income; 
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Most states also have benefit programs available for their residents. For example, workers’ compensation is a state welfare program that pays benefits to workers who are injured on the job. Another example is unemployment insurance; this is a program that pays workers who have lost their job for a period during their unemployment.

In order to qualify for any type of welfare benefit, certain government-set criteria must be met. For example, a person must declare their income from all sources in order to determine if they qualify for assistance. 

The short-term goal of the “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families” program is to help people in need. The long-term goal of the program is to assist the individuals and families who receive welfare to become self-sufficient wage earners. The hope is for welfare recipients to find and keep a steady job to provide for themselves and their families, so they no longer need welfare.

Welfare fraud is a criminal act that occurs when people illegally take advantage of the governmental assistance program by receiving benefits to which they are not entitled. A person commits the crime of welfare fraud by submitting false information or withholding information in order to obtain more money than the person is entitled to receive. For example, if a person is required to state their income and they fail to report all of their income from all sources, they are guilty of welfare fraud.

Welfare fraud is a federal criminal offense. There are also state laws that make welfare fraud a crime. Some states also charge welfare fraud as:

  • Perjury – Perjury is lying when a person is under oath to tell the truth; a person who fills out an application for welfare benefits is under oath to complete it truthfully;
  • Forgery – Forgery is creating a false document; again, a written application for a welfare benefit is a document that can be falsified, thus giving rise to the crime of forgery;
  • Theft -The crime of theft is taking the property of another person without the person’s consent;
  • General larceny – The crime of larceny is similar to the crime of theft.

What Are Some Examples of Welfare Fraud?

Examples of welfare fraud can take many forms and  include the following:

  • When applying for welfare benefits, a person claims to make less income than they in fact make;
  • When applying for welfare benefits, a person claims to have more dependents, e.g. children, than they really have in the household;
  • A person might use the names of other people (possibly the name of a deceased person) to receive multiple welfare payments; this is a form of identity theft as well as fraud;
  • A person might claim to have a disability when in truth, the person does not have a disability;
  • A person might fail to report a prior criminal record when asked whether they have a criminal record; 
  • A person might fail to report income received from other government programs, such as Social Security benefits.
  • A person might have initially qualified to receive a welfare benefit, but then gets a well-paid job and fails to report that their circumstances have changed.

If a person has qualified for a welfare benefit and then has a change in circumstances, the person should notify the welfare agency of the change. It might have an effect on the person’s qualification for the benefit and failing to report the change could result in a charge of welfare fraud.

The dishonest schemes take resources away from people who genuinely need welfare benefits. They also create the risk that the person who commits these acts will be prosecuted by state or federal authorities for criminal welfare fraud.

Steps to Avoid Welfare Fraud

While there is no full-proof method to avoid becoming the target of welfare fraud, there are some basic steps that can be taken in order to make the system and yourself less vulnerable.

These include the following:

  • Unless absolutely necessary, a person should not share their Social Security number, bank or credit account information with anyone; if a doctor’s office or other business asks for a Social Security number, decline to provide it; 
  • If a family member dies, a person should confirm that the death is reported to the Social Security Administration system
  • A person should keep copies of any applications for welfare benefits and documents showing the benefits paid; 
  • A person should report suspected welfare fraud to the appropriate state or federal agency.

There will be instances when confidential information will need to be shared with state welfare officials. For example when initially completing the welfare application forms, the governmental agency will request the information in order to verify eligibility status. Of course, this information should be provided and it should be accurate.

What Are Some Consequences of Welfare Fraud?

Welfare fraud is a crime, and the penalties imposed can include county jail time or imprisonment in a state penitentiary for conviction of state welfare fraud. A person can be sentenced to a term in a federal penitentiary and the payment of fines for federal welfare fraud.

Additionally, a person convicted of welfare fraud under federal law will not be able to apply for food stamps or other federal benefit programs for a period of between 10 years to life. A person who is convicted of welfare fraud and is not a citizen of this country can be deported, as well as denied re-entry into the country for life.

There are federal sentencing guidelines for federal welfare fraud. Sentencing guidelines give sentencing judges suggestions as to how they should sentence a person convicted of a federal crime. These include the type of welfare program that was defrauded, how it was done, how long it lasted, and the amount of money involved. 

Whether the defendant committed welfare fraud before or has a criminal record for other crimes is also a factor. The personal circumstances of the defendant are also considered. If convicted, their family members are not disqualified from further welfare applications, but the defendant can be disqualified from receiving the benefits of federal welfare programs. 

State courts have their own sentencing guidelines for determining the sentence for a person convicted of welfare fraud or related crimes, such as perjury or forgery. Guidelines vary from state to state and an experienced criminal defense lawyer would be familiar with the sentencing guidelines in the state where a person is convicted of welfare fraud. A state’s sentencing guidelines will probably include the same or similar factors to the federal sentencing guidelines.

Should I Hire a Welfare Fraud Lawyer?

A fraud lawyers can assist in dealing with welfare fraud cases.  They can help determine the best plan for your particular situation. An experienced criminal defense attorney will be familiar with the guidelines and rules regarding the welfare programs in the state where you live. 

Additionally, there are federal guidelines and rules that must be followed. If you have questions regarding welfare fraud, it is best to discuss your case with an experienced criminal defense lawyer who has the knowledge and experience to resolve your situation in the most favorable way possible.