Welfare clients air their grievances More caring system needed, panel told

August 05, 1993|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

Welfare clients, their frustration sometimes moving them to tears and shouts, got their chance last night to tell the governor's welfare commission how to improve the system that rules their lives.

But their concerns were not so far from the same problems that the Governor's Commission on Welfare Policy has wrestled with over the last seven months: how to create a more humane process with greater incentives for those who want to work and keep their families together.

"It's not a welfare system," said Donna Akala, who lives in a Cecil County homeless shelter with her husband and five children. "It's a punitive system that leads to family breakup. I've been told again and again, 'If only you were single' "

But the "marriage penalty" -- which makes married couples virtually ineligible for most forms of public assistance -- was just one of the problems highlighted at last night's public hearing at the University of Baltimore.

The more than 50 welfare clients, who came from all over the state, also complained about unfeeling caseworkers and a rigid bureaucracy that they said seemingly cannot separate well-intentioned recipients from cheaters.

"I need some one-on-one attention," said Karen Carey of Essex, a mother of three, who is using her grant to attend Essex Community College. "I want someone to say, 'Hello Mrs. Carey, how do you feel today? Is there anything I can help you with?' "

"There's more than one person, more than one story, more than one situation," said Brenda Miller of Carroll County, tears streaming down her face. "We have to be handled on an individual basis. My social worker does not care. [To her] I'm just a piece of white trash who's trying to rip off the system."

The commission's chairman, former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti, asked how to design a system that would give people greater freedom from arbitrary rules but allow caseworkers to know them well enough to make individual assessments.

No one had any ready answers, but almost all of the audience members raised their hands when asked whether they had been neglected or abused by caseworkers.

There were also complaints aboutthe state's job training programs and its spotty attempts to collect child support.

Erica Nichols of Wicomico County said she graduated from high school with honors but that the welfare office sent her to a training class where she learned to fill out job applications. The 23-year-old Ms. Nichols went on Aid to Families with Dependent Children just to get the child care credit, good for a year, then got a job, dropped the benefits, but kept the child care. "I swore to myself I'd never need their money again," Ms. Nichols said.

The 20-member commission has been meeting since February, with orders from Gov. William Donald Schaefer to consider every possibility in the quest to revamp the system.

Subcommittees of the commission have worked on different draft proposals, but everything is still on the table, said Richard Larson of the Department of Human Resources. The only idea rejected outright was making state funds available for abortions. Commission members said they felt that would detract from their overall mission.

The commission is scheduled to deliver its recommendations to the governor by Oct. 31, in time for his staff to develop proposals for the 1994 General Assembly session. A final report is due in June 1994.

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