Going after ''welfare cheaters'' unfortunately lends itself to political manipulation. Conservatives relish ''cracking down'' on persons who defraud the government. Liberals enjoy decrying what they portray as a heartless, big-business-oriented administration. But what of the general public in all this? Does not the public have a legitimate stake in thwarting violations of welfare programs?
It certainly does. As a recent report by the General Accounting Office indicated, fraud and mismanagement in welfare programs are costing taxpayers millions of dollars annually. The Social Security Administration last year paid out on the order of $100 million in supplemental security income benefits to persons whose unearned income should have disqualified them from receiving the welfare checks in the first place.
Surely such an outright loss of federal tax dollars can no longer be countenanced. The administration proposal to tie welfare benefits to a crosscheck of federal income tax records is therefore reasonable.
It is, of course, necessary to ensure that such a plan be carefully structured to avoid violations of civil liberties even while identifying falsifying of claims. The issue is not one of misusing tax information, as some critics contend. Under current law, it is a felony for IRS officials unlawfully to disclose tax information - to third parties, for instance. At the same time, Section 6103C of the US Tax Code allows the IRS to turn over tax information to such persons as may be designated by the taxpayer.
Under the administration plan, now being worked out by the Social Security Administration, taxpayers seeking supplemental security income would have to fill out a consent form enabling social security officials to look at documents filed with the IRS on interest, dividends, and other outside income so as to determine whether the claimant deserves such a welfare benefit. This year alone such benefits will be paid out to 4.1 million persons, costing taxpayers roughly
The IRS, for its part, is currently studying the plan to see if any new regulations are needed. If so, the proposals will be released for general public comment and debate.
If the verification program were to prove unworkable in the long run, it could quickly be scuttled. But it seems only just to go after persons who deliberately take tax dollars away from those who truly deserve federal help.