State Hopes It Can Avoid A `Train Wreck' On March 3 But Glitches Are Lurking In System

Posted: February 10, 1999

Three weeks before the first big deadline for Pennsylvania's welfare-reform law, thousands of recipients haven't fulfilled their responsibility to search for work.

One diagnosis: Many recipients are in "denial."

Then again, so are welfare officials.

Officials have yet to acknowledge serious problems in the way many caseworkers have administered the new law. This is easy since they conveniently control what little data there is.

And they have yet to comprehend the unfairness of punishing children for their parents' failure to comply with the rules - especially if there's a chance that they are not "willfully" disregarding the law, as required before sanctions.

The welfare department promises there won't be a "train wreck" on the March 3 deadline - that it won't summarily cut off all cash benefits to Pennsylvanians who have been on welfare 24 months but aren't working 20 hours a week. One estimate puts that number at 17,000 adults in Philadelphia, plus twice as many children, more than 50,000 people.

Instead, the department says it will send out notices to each recipient, then hold individual meetings to determine why clients haven't complied.

Many "good cause" exemptions could excuse families from immediate cutoffs: Recipients too sick or disabled to work, victims of domestic violence, households where a non-biological parent is responsible for the children, inability to find adequate child care.

If recipients have job leads, they'll be given 10 days to land one. Depending on education and skill levels, some will be sent to an intensive 30-day job search, while others may be placed in a six-month minimum-wage job.

Sounds downright compassionate, if that's how it works.

But there may well be some glitches along the way. The welfare-reform system isn't exactly a well-oiled machine.

For lots of Pennsylvanians, welfare reform has worked: They got the shove they needed and now are working.

But not everyone fared so well. And at least some of the problem was confusion about new policies and programs.

At first, the problems were laid to insufficient training of caseworkers, as well as the demand to change the entire culture.

But well into implementation, advocacy groups found that the information being dispensed varied from caseworker to caseworker and didn't necessarily agree with actual policy.

Months after those reports, the rumblings continue: Caseworkers still get information wrong, and don't know enough about clients or the programs available.

Many welfare clients have no other source of cash. If they lose benefits, they can't pay for rent, utilities, or clothes for themselves or their children. People this destitute will end up in homeless shelters, soup kitchens, hospitals and jails. Mothers hit with sanctions may feel they have no choice but to abandon children to the care of relatives or even to the Department of Human Services.

So a lot is riding on the welfare department's review of cases. Its record so far doesn't inspire confidence. Neither does its promise to conduct an internal review of welfare cutoffs.

The state welfare department should adopt a "customer service review" program like one in Tennessee. That state contracted with four universities to provide independent reviewers trained in Tennessee law and state welfare policy.

If a welfare recipient was due to be cut off, a reviewer was called in to mediate, require proper documentation, determine that the policy was being applied fairly - finding ways for the client to comply with department regulations.

The result: After the first four months of the program, the number of benefit cut-offs was reduced by 30 percent.

It isn't yet known exactly just how so many of the sanctions were avoided - whether caseworkers were misinterpreting policy or just that the reviewers were better at communicating the guidelines and confirming to recipients that the welfare department meant business. Probably some of each.

With the review, the state could be confident that the process was fair and just. Not only were clients protected, but state officials had reliable information to make future policy decisions.

Two years ago, welfare recipients were asked to sign an Agreement of Mutual Responsibility, detailing what they had to do to comply with the new law.

Notice the word "mutual."

Pennsylvania also has a responsibility - to ensure that its review of cases is fair. If welfare officials believe in their program, they should welcome an independent customer service review.

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