Major Changes for First Year of Welfare Reform

by Brian Davis

          After one year of reform of welfare in the state of Ohio, there have been dramatic changes, but activists wonder if at the end of the day the community is better served. The Department of Human Services has split into two separate fields. One is known as Health and Nutrition, which coordinates Medicaid, childcare, and the food stamps program. The other is the Work and Training Department, which administers the cash program and works with the participants to assist in self-sufficiency skills, including finding a job.         

          The Department has decentralized its services by setting up seven satellite offices in the community with four more in the works. They have reassigned almost every case manager and provided training to almost every worker in the department. The caseworkers are in the community in an attempt to be more convenient to their clients. In the past two months, the department has started to convert individuals from paper food stamps to electronic stamps that work in much the same way as a bankcard.

            In Cuyahoga County, the welfare caseloads receiving cash assistance have dropped to 16,000 families down from 27,000. Cuyahoga County is actually behind other counties in reducing the welfare caseload with some counties cutting as much as 80% of those who were previously receiving assistance.   

          Case Western Reserve University Center for Urban Poverty studied those who left the welfare rolls between 1996 and 1997. They found that 46% were not making any money one year after leaving welfare, and another 11% were making less than $4,000 per year. They found that only about one third of the population was making $12,000 or more a year after they had left the welfare rolls.

            With the number of workers in training, the new phone systems, and the confusion over the changes, both the Welfare Department and the County Ombudsman, an independent mediator and arbiter, report dramatic increases in complaints from recipients. Joe Gauntner, Director of Health and Nutrition, feels that those problems are in the past. He said, “We feel we are on the downward curve [of complaints].”

            Rosalinda Denore, Special Projects Coordinator of the Empowerment Center of Cleveland, is not so sure that the worst of the problems are in the past. “There certainly is a lot of confusion,” Denore said. “They have set it up to make it easier, but they have still not put the pieces in place. They need training about being respectful and empathetic to the clients.”

            One local activist described the changes as similar to the reorganization of a hospital with the doctors now sweeping the floors, the nurses now acting as administrators and the orderlies appointed as the surgeons. Denore said, “There are some who are really trying hard. Overall there is a lot of confusion and missing information and they cannot take time to help their clients.”

            Steve Wertheim, the County Ombudsman, said that the time it takes to resolve cases is taking a lot longer than in the past. “This was a manageable problem in the past. We used to be able to get in touch with the supervisor and get the problem solved,” said Wertheim. He went on the say that the problem has not improved over the last two months.

            The local homeless women’s shelters report that they are finding it difficult to refer women to the department to sign up for assistance. They have to send a social worker with the client to be able to ask the right questions and know the direction a woman must take to get the correct benefits. This is creating an additional hardship on the shelters that have to expend staff time to get women with children the benefits that they are entitled to receive.

            Gauntner defended the program changes, saying that it is natural to expect some confusion when a new system is introduced. Gauntner said that the training was almost complete. “I think that things are starting to settle down. I would say that we try to be responsive to our customers.”

            Wertheim said, “I don’t have a problem with having patience with the system. Basically, the people who are paying are those in the programs. They tell us to ‘have patience.’ We need to hold them to the same standard that they are holding the community and their customers to.” The people receiving cash assistance are being sanctioned and dropped from the program at an alarming pace while their time clocks continue to tick. The County will not accept “have patience” when clients show up having voluntarily quit their jobs because they have to care for a sick child. They are given a three-month sanction.

            A number of different activists raised the concern that at the same time the County is making huge cuts in the number of people being served it is expanding its overhead by opening neighborhood centers. Denore raised the question that if the rolls keep decreasing will the neighborhood centers be open and the staff trained, and there will not be anyone left receiving assistance? And is the money that was going to families being used to pay rent, additional staff, and security for the new centers?

            Gauntner said the Department still has not reached the estimated number of staff budgeted in January of 1998. He said that in comparison to years such as 1990 when there was a large welfare caseload, the department has hundreds of fewer employees. Gauntner said this was a legitimate concern but cautioned that the task of the Work and Training office is to support people who have left cash assistance and support them so that they don’t have to come back to cash assistance.

            The change that will have the impact on the largest number of people is the conversion of food stamps from paper to an electronic benefit card. In the next 6 months, 40,000 people will need to begin to use the benefit card in Cuyahoga County. Gauntner said that most of the stores have converted to the electronic benefits, and 5, 000 people have started using the system. The problem with the new system noted by both the Ombudsman’s Office and the Empowerment Center is the delay in getting the benefits when a problem arises. It takes sometimes as long as 48 hours to correct a problem when a card does not work. This is 48 hours the family goes without food or must make other arrangements.

            Denore raised the concern that with the confusion in the welfare department with a new phone system, new case workers, and all the rest, why also convert the food stamps program? Gauntner agreed that it would have been easier to wait a year to convert the system, but said that he really has not heard many complaints from the customers. He said that besides a few “start up problems” the system is working well.

            Denore said, “I don’t think that [Electronic Benefits] will reduce the fraud. People find ways to cheat. I don’t think it will make it better for the people on food stamps.”

            The chaotic system that has existed in the welfare department over the summer and early fall would never have been tolerated in a system directed at a middle-class consumer. When the E-Check system faced long lines and poorly trained staff, drivers were exempted from the requirements until the system was fixed. Despite confusion in the welfare system the time clock continues to tick. Denore said this is representative of the “continued victimization of poor people. They don’t get the respect or proper treatment because they are poor.”

Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine NEOCH October-November 1998