January 4, 2008 | Commentary on Crime
Imagine a government welfare program that is efficient, helps the needy by giving them money within 10 days of their application for benefits, and eliminates waste, fraud and abuse.
Too good to be true? Nope. Project 100% in San Diego does just that.
It all started with a radical concept: Welfare benefits should be given only to those who are actually eligible for them. In 1997, the San Diego District Attorney's Office decided to crack down on welfare fraud and approached the problem in an innovative, results-oriented manner. Instead of sitting back and just investigating welfare cheats after the fact, they decided to attack the problem by certifying that applicants were eligible for benefits in the first place. To most of us, that seems fair.
Under Project 100%, to get welfare benefits an applicant must fill out a simple form in a truthful manner and deliver the form to the government. Within 10 days, an investigator from the District Attorney's Fraud Unit visits the applicant at his or her home, during working hours, and chats with him or her about her application. Once the chat is over, the investigator does a five-minute walk-through of the home led by the applicant.
The purpose of the walk-through is to look for inconsistencies between the prospective beneficiary's application and actual living conditions. For example, do the actual assets match the applicant's written claims? Does the minor child claimed on the applicant's form live in the house, and is the child the legal ward of the applicant? Is the applicant really a legal resident of San Diego?
The walk-through is done only if the applicant consents. If the applicant does not consent to the verification process, she is denied welfare benefits -- nothing more, nothing less. Sounds reasonable, right? To most of us it does.
Of course, you can never make everyone happy.
Several welfare applicants sued, claiming that the "search" of their homes was unreasonable under the Constitution. This, despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court said in 1971 that home visits for welfare-verification purposes were not searches under the Fourth Amendment. Fortunately, the applicants lost in both the federal district and appeals court. The U.S. Supreme Court recently refused to take the case of Sanchez v. County of San Diego: That means the program is lawful and can continue.
These days, you hear lots of folks talk about the "right" to this, and the "right" to that. In most of these cases, there is no constitutional right involved at all -- merely a desire by the speaker to make something a right, usually out of whole cloth. There is no "right" to welfare benefits if you lie about your eligibility.
Similarly, courts have held that people who have committed crimes and been given the privilege of probation (instead of going to jail) do not have a Fourth Amendment "right" to complain about searches of their homes by law enforcement while they are on probation. Why? Because probation is a government privilege -- not, as many think, a right. In the same vein, there is no "right" to complain about random drug testing for public high-school student athletes, because schools have a special need to deter drug usage by students.
By refusing to take this case, the Supreme Court has given advocates of sound government the green light to push for and implement programs like Project 100% around the country.
So, look around you. Is your local government innovative and efficient, and acting in the public interest by actually checking the eligibility of welfare recipients before they start giving out your money? If not, tell them about Project 100%, and thank the San Diego District Attorney's Office for leading the way.
Cully Stimson, a former prosecutor and defense attorney, is a senior legal fellow.
First appeared in FoxNews.com