Welfare: Arrearages and Back Bills - To Pay or Not to Pay?

Applicants for local assistance often come to the welfare office because they are behind in rent and utility bills. They may have been served with an eviction notice or a disconnect notice. One of the many questions for the welfare administrator to answer in this case is whether the arrearages, or back bills, will be paid by the municipality as part of the welfare assistance rendered to the eligible applicant. This question may only be answered after a careful review of each applicant’s situation—it should not be resolved with a blanket “we never pay back bills" policy.

Why can’t a blanket policy to not pay these back bills work? After all, these bills can be well over one thousand dollars, and paying them on a regular basis will probably bust the welfare budget! That may be true, but we must keep in mind the basic legal duty of all town and city welfare programs: “Whenever a person in any town is poor and unable to support himself, he shall be relieved and maintained by the overseers of public welfare of such town, whether or not he has a residence there." RSA 165:1. This means that if a person is poor and unable to support himself/herself, determined by applying his or her total financial picture against the standard of need in the written guidelines, then the municipality must provide assistance to meet the basic needs. If the only way to provide housing for an eligible applicant is to pay the past due rent, then the rent must be paid. If the only way to provide heat to an eligible applicant is to pay the arrearages on the electric bill, then those arrearages must be paid. In short, if a person is eligible for assistance, it cannot be denied due to a policy of “never paying back bills." Back bills may be considered in determining eligibility, when the welfare administrator determines that it is necessary to ensure the health or safety of the applicant.

The task of resolving these many and varied issues is why LGC attorneys refer to this process as “the art of welfare." There is room for creativity and compassion in administering your local welfare program. For more information, we encourage you to contact an experienced local welfare administrator, the staff attorneys at LGC or your local counsel. Membership in the New Hampshire Local Welfare Administrators Association is also an ideal way to ensure that your welfare program best meets the needs of those who cannot provide for themselves while also managing municipal welfare funds in a prudent manner.

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