First cuts of welfare reform take effect Oct. 1 State officials scramble to cope with 15% fund loss


COLUMBIA, Mo. -- A little-noticed provision in the nation's new welfare law that will immediately cut federal money for such safety-net services as soup kitchens and child protection programs has set off a scramble among state officials to preserve what they can.

As of Oct. 1, the government will chop 15 percent, or $420 million, from the $2.8 billion it distributes annually to the states in no-strings-attached money under a program known as the Social Services Block Grant.

States use the appropriations in hundreds of ways, typically to xTC help the elderly poor stay out of nursing homes, to pay for shelters and day care, to rehabilitate juvenile criminals and to rescue children from parental abuse or neglect.

States say the cuts come at the worst possible moment, when they expect the welfare law to start increasing the demand for services by legal immigrants, mentally disabled children and single adults who stand to lose food stamps or other assistance under the law's other provisions.

"It's not welfare reform," said Greg Vadner, director of the Division of Aging of Missouri's Department of Social Services. "You just have less money. It's purely a funding cut."

Like many states, Missouri is asking managers of local safety-net programs to prepare to accommodate the reduction. Steve Renne, deputy director of the Department of Social Services in Jefferson City, said the Legislature would consider a special appropriation to offset the cuts, using savings from the decrease in people on welfare because of the healthy economy.

But some services will be cut.

"It will be some combination of all those options," Renne said. "Within the next 30 days, we will have to decide. Our legislative folks don't want to be in the position of picking up the loss. "

Vadner said that in his division the cuts mean new applicants for home-delivered meals will be turned away: "We will reduce the number of people we serve."

The concern intensifies at the community level, where social workers, teachers, counselors and local charities come face to face with the poor.

The Salvation Army in Columbia, which receives only 2 percent of its money from public agencies and none under the block grant, is already reeling from the impact of the stiffer welfare regulations that Missouri, like most states, adopted in the months before the federal law was enacted.

"We're getting more and more families," said Capt. Max Grindel, commanding officer. Through mid-September, he said, he had served 25,000 meals, up from 16,000 at the same time last year.

Every night, all 50 beds in the shelter are taken and, he said, "We're in need of a new shelter."

Lynn Cole, children's services supervisor for Boone County, of which Columbia is the hub, said: "Some of these people won't be able to care for their children, so their children will be coming to us.

"What I see is more children coming in for care and less resources to help them."

The cuts, she said, could halt the expansion of services like Althea Harris'.

Harris, 45 and single, has degrees in social work and law, but she has chosen to work as a career foster parent under a 4-year-old program dedicated to helping Columbia's most neglected or abused children.

The state pays her $45 per child a day to rehabilitate up to two severely troubled children and prepare them for adoption or return to their parents. She has adopted four of her foster children, now 8 to 17 years old.

"It's just fun," she said of her work. "A van-load of kids. Going to the library. Taking them to swimming lessons.

"We work real intensively with them and their families. We show the parents whatever behavioral techniques work best. What's gratifying is when the kids can go back home."

The state also uses the grant to help pay for the average $110 daily cost of caring for youngsters ages 12 to 17 in closely supervised group homes after they had turned to crime.

Demand for that service, too, is growing, said Terry Finn, regional administrator for the Division of Youth Services.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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