Job Mandate Nears For Welfare Rolls
By David Abel | Globe Staff | 5/20/2002
Like thousands of welfare recipients throughout the state, Jaime Morrow may look back in a few years and think how easy she has it now.
All the 22-year-old single mother has to worry about today is caring for her 8-month-old daughter and 4-year-old son while keeping up with her studies at Greenfield Community College.
As a consensus emerges in Congress behind the most significant changes in welfare since landmark reforms six years ago, her welfare checks may soon come with strings attached. Morrow and many other mothers like her will probably have to find work.
With only about 6 percent of the state's welfare recipients working - and the Congress expected to require 70 percent of them to join the work force - Morrow and other able-bodied parents with healthy preschoolers are likely to be part of the first group pressed to work.
"For me, it means I might have to choose between work and school," said Morrow, who would have to work 24 hours a week on top of 16 hours of classes to continue receiving welfare. "With the homework and my kids, I don't think I could handle it all."
If legislation approved by the House last week stands, Massachusetts could have more trouble than any other state in the country complying with the new rules. The Commonwealth, which has the nation's most liberal work requirements, would have to radically change its approach to welfare to avoid losing $459 million in federal grants.
And no matter how much the state tries to comply with the new work requirements, skeptics say, the costs of child care, training, and transportation would outweigh the benefits of putting most of the 47,000 welfare recipients to work.
For states to meet the work requirements, the Congressional Budget Office estimates it would cost $35 billion over five years for child care - $11 billion more than currently budgeted.
In the Commonwealth, according to a study by the United Way of Massachusetts Bay, providing child care and training to the 8,400 parents of children ages 2 to 5 would cost about $30 million a year. "It's just not possible," said Donna Haig Friedman, director of the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "There are too many barriers. Wishing them away or mandating they find jobs just won't work."
But officials in the administration of Acting Governor Jane Swift, who have long sought to put more welfare recipients to work, don't buy the doom-and-gloom predictions. Like congressional Republicans, they argue that Democrats made similarly dire prophecies a decade ago, before the first round of changes successfully cut the nation's welfare rolls by more than half, to about 5.3 million.
In Massachusetts, the decline has paralleled the national trend, with the number of welfare recipients falling from 102,993 in 1995 to 46,953 as of the end of last month.
"Whether or not those goals are attainable is questionable at this point, but we'll never know unless we try," said Dick Powers, a spokesman for the Department of Transitional Assistance, which oversees the state's welfare program. "Not having high standards is a disservice to people on welfare."
Opponents say now is a bad time to put pressure on the poor, unlike the last round of welfare changes, which coincided with an economic boom. In the past year, since the downturn took hold, the state's welfare rolls have grown by 12 percent. And with Massachusetts facing the largest budget cuts in a decade, the House last week cut millions of dollars from the welfare department's administrative and support services budget, making it likely that hundreds of staff members will be axed and offices throughout the state will close.
The smaller number of caseworkers and training programs, combined with a backlog of some 17,000 nonwelfare families waiting for a spot in state child care, would make it much more difficult for the state to comply with the proposed welfare rules, both opponents and supporters say.
"I don't see any way to comply with this without a huge investment from the state - and I don't see that happening," said Elizabeth Toolin, coordinator of the Family Economic Initiative, a welfare advocacy group in Boston. "Unless there's a serious change, I think Massachusetts will suffer a financial penalty for not meeting the federal requirements."
Still, the state has time. A waiver would keep the proposed rules from taking effect in Massachusetts until 2005. The federal legislation, which increases the number of hours welfare recipients must work, study, or attend job training from 30 hours to 40 hours a week, doesn't take full effect until 2007.
Moreover, the proposed rules would excuse a significant number of welfare recipients from working, including as many as 38 percent of those in Massachusetts.
Even so, the new rules would boost the number of working welfare recipients from little more than 2,700 today to about 30,000 by 2007.
Supporters cheer such numbers, saying many of the parents with preschoolers are "doing little more than watching `Oprah,' " according to Powers.
In Massachusetts, unlike every other state, parents don't have to work until their children turn 6. Every other state requires parents to work after their children reach 2, except Texas, which sets the limit at 4.
But opponents worry the cost of full-time work will be too high for thousands of mothers like Jaime Morrow, who will grind through low-end jobs instead of breaking the cycle of poverty.
Sandra Umana already has a job, as do nearly 1,000 working welfare recipients with preschoolers. But for the 30-year-old mother from Jamaica Plain, the prospect of being required to work more than the 10 hours she already does is frightening. She has a 4-year-old and is trying to balance being a single mom with attending Bunker Hill Community College. If Congress requires her to work an extra 14 hours while carrying a full load at school, she worries her grades will fall and she won't graduate.
"For me, stopping my education is exactly what would keep me from being self-sufficient," she said. "How is that good for the state?"
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.
DISABLED ON WELFARE FACE PRESSURE TO WORK
By David Abel
As Congress presses states to put more of their welfare recipients to work, Massachusetts may be forced to change regulations on the largest pool of people now exempt from work requirements: the disabled.
And the state will likely look first at those suffering from the increasingly treatable diseases of depression and anxiety disorders, who make up roughly half of the nearly 14,000 people receiving work exemptions for disabilities, according to those overseeing the state's welfare program.
With only 6 percent of the Commonwealth's welfare recipients now holding jobs, and the proposed rules in Congress requiring 70 percent to work, "The Legislature's going to have to consider it," said Dick Powers, a spokesman for the state's Department of Transitional Assistance.
The possible move has revived a longstanding debate among specialists dealing with low-income people. Some argue it would be either cruel or impractical to force the clinically depressed to work, but others contend it could be therapeutic, a means of evading their isolation at home and infusing their lives with a sense of accomplishment.
Ellie Thillet knows firsthand both sides of the debate.
For years, the 46-year-old single mother of three wrestled with the opposing arguments in her own head. The Springfield resident likes to work, she says, and often has sacrificed her welfare checks to earn more money as everything from a nurse's aide to a real estate agent to a ticket collector at amusement parks.
But years of depression caught up with her two years ago. As feelings of inadequacy, a short temper, and a desire to kill herself built up, she had a nervous breakdown - at work. Since then, she has collected Social Security Income benefits, which have no time limit and no work requirement.
"I would love to work, and I miss it - but I just can't," she said. "I can't be around a lot of people; I just can't deal with them, and I don't think I could handle a job."
The problem, say those who have studied cases like Thillet's, begins with an inadequate intake system. Welfare case managers in Massachusetts and around the country don't ask those seeking welfare whether they suffer from a mental illness - and some don't know they're depressed.
The result is that many of those who suffer from depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses often end up on welfare without any awareness that they're eligible for the work exemptions. Nationally, while only 1 in every 5 welfare recipients is diagnosed with depression, fully half show symptoms of the condition, according to Mary Clare Lennon, director of social science research at Columbia University's National Center for Children and Poverty.
Putting the depressed to work could succeed, Lennon and others say, but it requires a rigorous medical screening process, as well as the proper treatment, including drugs and therapy, and a support system that gives more job flexibility to those suffering mental illnesses than the general welfare population.
"Having a job is important to most people, regardless of severity of disability," said Lennon, who recently wrote a paper on depression and welfare. "Being engaged in productive activities certainly helps with self esteem, especially for many who suffer from depression - but without support, I don't think it could work."
In Massachusetts, welfare recipients must report their mental illness to be eligible for the work exemption. Then they must present documentation from a doctor about their condition. In all, according to current figures, about 30 percent of people receiving work exemptions are disabled, and half of those are suffering from anxiety or depression.
After filing for the exemption, their cases are reviewed by Disability Evaluation Services at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which affirms exemptions only if the welfare recipient's depression is "a prolonged emotion that colors the whole psychic life" and includes symptoms such as sleep problems, significant weight changes, or antisocial behavior. Three out of every 10 who claim depression are rejected for the work exemption, said Kristin Johnson, acting director at the UMass center.
As depression is confirmed by asking subjective and hard-to-prove questions - anything from "Do you have feelings of guilt or worthlessness?" to "Do you think about suicide" - some try to cheat the system. But researchers say the numbers are few and don't compare to those who are depressed and unaware of the exemptions.
"People always ask: Aren't these people lying?" said Mary Ellen Colten, director of the Center for Survey Research at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "The answer is no, they usually aren't. Just because some people run red lights, doesn't mean most people do."
Those doubts, some welfare advocates suggest, fuel misguided reforms - such as requiring the mentally ill to work. Rather than pushing the depressed into work, they say, it would make more sense to offer them training and education programs.
"By putting people with mental disabilities to work, no one can predict with certainly when there will be a crisis - and whether they'll stay at their jobs," said Melanie Malherbe, managing attorney of the welfare-law unit at Greater Boston Legal Services.
For Ellie Thillet, now on a tight regimen of antidepressants and meeting once a week with a therapist, a job wouldn't be a burden. It would be nice, she says, but only if she can overcome her depression.
"I've worked most of my life, and I'd like to work again," she said. "But if I'm always crying, I'm agitated, and I'm feeling down, who would want to hire me?"
STAFF CUTS HALT PROBE OF WELFARE FRAUD CASES
By David Abel
The state has stopped investigating all new reports of welfare fraud, with about 1,500 new cases untouched since last month,when Acting Governor Jane Swift drastically cut the number of fraud investigators.
On March 1, looking to offset the state's budget crunch, Swift slashed the number of investigators at the Bureau of Special Investigations from 68 to five, a steep cut on top of the dozens of investigators laid off in recent years. The governor also announced that she intends to reduce the bureau's budget from more than $5 million last year to less than $450,000 next fiscal year.
"It's absolutely nuts," said David Hemenway, a 21-year veteran of the bureau and one of the five remaining investigators. "We can't do our jobs; we don't have enough people. Not only is the state losing the ability to deter fraud, it's losing the revenue we bring in - which is more than it costs the state to pay us."
Now, hundreds of boxes stuffed with files from cases around the state are piling up atop rows of empty desks in the bureau's central office in South Boston. The phones there ring constantly, but no one has time to answer calls. And when several investigators take vacation at the same time, as occurred this week, foiling welfare fraud is practically impossible, staff members say.
Over the past month and a half, instead of staking out families illegally collecting public assistance, Hemenway and his colleagues have driven from Pittsfield to Worcester to Hyannis to collect files from about 25 bureau offices. They have also appeared in courtrooms across the state - as many as 10 times in a week - to prevent judges from dismissing ongoing cases.
The effort hasn't always succeeded. Three weeks ago, when one of the bureau's laid-off investigators failed to show up for a hearing, a judge in Haverhill decided to drop charges against a 27-year-old welfare recipient accused of bilking taxpayers of $51,000. Investigators say they recently reinstated the case.
The lack of investigators has riled prosecutors across the state, who rely on them to prepare and oversee thousands of welfare fraud charges every year, and as many as 1,500 since March. Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley sent a letter to Swift last month urging her to reconsider the cuts to the welfare fraud unit.
Without the investigators' help, she wrote: "We will be unable to prosecute those who intentionally defraud the Commonwealth. Many, if not all, of the welfare fraud cases currently pending may not be pursued, resulting in the loss of revenue to the state."
Investigators say the state receives $3 for every $1 it spends on the bureau. Nearly 50 percent of the welfare applications they investigate are rejected, they say. And every year they help convict hundreds of people who commit welfare fraud, earning the state millions of dollars in court-ordered restitution and reimbursements from the federal government.
For officials at the Department of Transitional Assistance, which oversees the welfare program and has seen 14 percent of its own staff cut in the past two months, the growing number of uninvestigated reports of fraud is troubling, especially as the welfare caseload rises with the economic downturn.
"It's just very frustrating right now," said Dick Powers, a department spokesman. "We hope the problem is resolved soon - something has to be done. This situation can't last."
Despite bipartisan calls in the Legislature for restoring many of the investigators' jobs, administration officials justify cutting the bureau's staff and say they have no plans to change their decision.
Because the state's welfare caseload has dropped by more than half since welfare reform laws took effect in the mid-1990s, falling from a peak of 102,993 in 1992 to 46,915 cases last month, the administration argues it needs fewer investigators. The declining caseload, they say, has resulted in a drop in welfare fraud cases by more than 80 percent.
Moreover, Swift officials argue, new technology and increased cooperation among states in recent years has made it more difficult for people to take advantage of the system. In 1997, for example, the state introduced an electronic benefits system that requires nearly all welfare recipients to use a photo ID to receive payments. Officials also dispute the financial benefit of the investigators, saying the majority of the court-ordered restitution is never collected.
"No one is happy about layoffs, but we feel the staffing is now appropriate," said James Borghesani, a Swift spokesman. "With the steep reduction in welfare cases, we think this is the appropriate action in a time of fiscal hardship."
Many lawmakers don't agree and some are organizing an effort to restore the investigators' jobs. They contend that the administration's decision is sending the wrong signal to welfare recipients - and that the cuts could violate the law. To be eligible for federal money, Congress requires states to investigate welfare fraud.
"I think this is just very shortsighted of the administration," said state Senator Therese Murray, a Plymouth Democrat and member of the Ways and Means Committee. "This is the wrong place to cut. We are losing money because the investigators aren't working."
She and others point to the amount of money the federal government reimburses the state each year for successfully prosecuting hundreds of welfare cases. From 1998 through 2001, the government reimbursed the state more than $16 million.
"This is a major mistake, a huge problem," said state Senator Richard Tisei, a Wakefield Republican and assistant minority leader. "It's a major retreat and a step backward. It could shake the very foundations of the entire Welfare Reform Act."
For Bruce Carmichael, one of the investigators laid off, it's also about a paycheck. The 20-year veteran of the Bureau of Special Investigations is collecting unemployment, job hunting, and, as president of the investigators' union, lobbying legislators to override Swift's decision.
He said that in addition to catching hundreds of people with bogus welfare claims, the bureau has helped state and federal authorities catch hundreds of fugitives and bust others for everything from illegally selling food stamps to defrauding state medical assistance programs.
"We are trained investigators," Carmichael said. "You can't replace that kind of knowledge with a computer. The state shouldn't use our success against us."
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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