No easy remedies seen for ailing welfare system

January 31, 1995|By WILEY A. HALL

Last weekend in Washington, our nation's political leaders called welfare a "bankrupt system," a "disaster" and a "monumental, colossal failure." The system received a bipartisan tongue-lashing during a working session on the issue held by President Clinton and at the winter meeting of the National Governors Association.

Moreover, a consensus seemed to emerge on goals for reform: States wanted more flexibility on designing programs, and all sides called for a greater effort to force welfare recipients to work for their benefits.

But keep in mind, we're talking here about politicians -- men and women who make their living telling us what they assume we want to hear. Since the polls show that most Americans believe welfare is a disaster, the huffing and puffing by politicians is no surprise.

So I invested some time asking social workers -- the people serving in the front lines -- how they feel about the system. I found that those workers agree with both the pols and the polls that the welfare system is in dire need of reform.

I interviewed eight Baltimore-area social workers for this column. So sensitive is the welfare bureaucracy these days that none of the workers would consent to being named.

"Most of our clients are able-bodied adults who ought to be able to work, but the system is set up so they don't have to," said a social worker assigned to the income maintenance division. "Nobody says clients have to look for a job. Nobody says to the clients that the money we're giving them is just for a safety net to help them get back on their feet. The clients accept welfare as a way of life because the government accepts it."

Added a case worker with two decades of experience: "I feel the system was never set up to be successful. We keep announcing policies and never following through. We keep implementing programs and then don't fund them. Welfare is like a scapegoat. If it ever started doing what it is supposed to do, what would politicians have to fuss about?"

Welfare workers may be among our least-appreciated public employees -- harangued by their clients, often the favorite targets of politicians. Welfare employees frequently are shoe-horned into crowded work spaces in deteriorating buildings and then asked to apply rapidly decreasing resources to an ever-increasing workload.

The social workers I have met entered the profession out of an idealistic, perhaps quixotic 1960s-style desire to help people, only to discover that the system itself makes this hard to do. I feel sorry for them.

While the workers I spoke with agreed with many of the public perceptions of what is wrong, they warned that fixing the problems will not be easy.

For instance, they acknowledged that some clients use the various forms of welfare money to buy drugs and alcohol, as described last week in a Sun series on the federal Supplemental Security Income program. But social workers believe that indiscriminately slashing recipients from the rolls would only harm those who sincerely need help.

Similarly, welfare workers say that it is hard to impose sanctions against mothers -- by cutting their benefits if they do not work, for instance -- without harming children.

"Being on welfare is about as degrading and humiliating as society can make it, yet I'm convinced that some of our clients get too comfortable and don't want to get off," said a worker who interviews applicants. "So, I'm in favor of giving them a push. We have a program like that now. But we come up against the reality that nothing we do will work until the recipient wants to work and is ready to change."

Said a worker assigned to child protective services: "The biggest barrier right now is substance abuse. A lot of people are so into drugs that they cannot see beyond that. They sell their babies' Pampers and their babies' milk for drugs. I've seen cases where mothers are using grocery bags as diapers. But treatment for drug abusers is limited. We're being asked to help people with more severe problems, though we have fewer resources.

"It gets very frustrating, very depressing," she said. "But there are no easy answers when people are involved."

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