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OTHER VOICES: Nebraska must stop seizing foster children's Social Security benefits

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Nebraska Capitol

The Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln is shown.

Protection of private property is one of the oldest principles in American government. Our nation’s founders placed multiple safeguards concerning it in the federal Constitution. Consider the Fifth Amendment. No American, it says, shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The Nebraska Constitution has a similar provision.

Supreme Court rulings defending private property rights, with rare exceptions such as eminent domain, constitute one of the oldest series of U.S. court precedents. The court has been issuing such rulings since the 1790s.

The message to government officials is clear and firm: Respect people’s property. It belongs to them, not the government.

This principle should apply to people’s money as well. With taxation the obvious exception, government has no right to seize people’s financial holdings.

And yet, state governments, including Nebraska’s, are doing precisely that in regard to children in foster care. Nebraska state government diverts about $2.7 million a year in foster children’s Social Security benefits to help cover the state’s child welfare costs.

At least 36 states indulge in such self-serving behavior, according to a report from the nonprofit Marshall Project and NPR. And at least 10 states, including Nebraska, hire for-profit companies to comb through Social Security files to find foster children who qualify. Nationally, about 10% of those in foster care qualify for such benefits.

To justify their action, states offer a flimsy rationale: Current law allows it. But that just illustrates a relevant and important cliché for public policy making: Some government actions may be legal, but they’re not right.

How, after all, does federal law classify foster children’s Social Security benefits? They’re labeled the children’s “property.”

And so we’re back to a fundamental American principle: That property belongs to them, not the government.

These children and teens already face major hurdles, and Social Security benefits have long-term importance by offering them a chance to find solid footing as they reach adulthood. It’s astounding that state governments would rationalize seizing such monies.

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha is right to blow the whistle on this practice, and next year the Legislature must vote to end it. In setting the state budget, lawmakers routinely approve appropriations to cover the operating expenses for a vast array of government operations. It’s inexcusable that the state siphons off foster children’s Social Security benefits to help defray costs the state itself should be covering.

It’s telling that the State Department of Health and Human Services was seizing foster care children’s financial assets at the very time this year that the Legislature had more than $200 million this session to devote to extra spending or tax cuts.

Current government policy can fairly be termed as financial abuse of some of Nebraska’s most vulnerable children.

Lawmakers apparently were unaware that such a diversion of children’s money was taking place. But now that they are, they have a responsibility to prohibit it. Surely there should be a broad consensus, across lines of party and philosophy, for such action.

It’s high time for Nebraska to end this ongoing violation of people’s financial liberty. In so doing, the state will uphold a key American principle. It also will increase the chances for future success for Nebraska young people.

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