States Illegally Deny Benefits To Poor, Report Says
By Clare Nolan, Senior Writer
A national organization of community groups says tests of four federally-funded social safety net programs exposed many gaps in the delivery of aid to the poor and showed a concerted effort by states to cut the rolls of their anti-poverty programs.
The organization, the National Campaign for Jobs and Income, says the states have intentionally and, in some cases, unlawfully erected barriers to keep poor families from obtaining the food assistance, medical insurance and child care to which they are entitled.
A "major cause of low and declining enrollment is the negligent and sometimes, unlawful behavior of state agencies administering support programs," the report says. "States have been given too much power without sufficient oversight to manage these programs and are failing in their obligation... It is time for the federal government to intervene."
"I think we would dispute those claims without a doubt," said Gretchen Odegard of the National Governors' Association (NGA).
Both NGA and the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA), which represents state human service administrators, acknowledge that states have unintentionally cut benefits to some families as they have overhauled their welfare systems. But they said governors and the state agencies are working hard to correct mistakes and to expand their child care and health insurance services for both poor families and those living just above the poverty line.
"There has been a structural change in this country in social policy. It's going to take time," said Elaine Ryan of APHSA. "A whole new process has to be put in place."
The National Campaign for Jobs and Income, a coalition of advocacy groups in 35 states, is sharply critical of the devolution of authority over anti-poverty programs to the states, particularly the new federal welfare law.
In 1996, Congress overhauled the nation's welfare system in a bid to save money and to foster innovation, two goals that have sometimes resulted in mixed messages to states and to recipients.
The law freed the states to run their welfare programs as they saw fit, with the requirement that they move adults into jobs and cut off all assistance to most families after five years. It also made large cuts in the food stamp program.
But implicit in the law was the idea that states would create a web of new support programs to help parents find and keep jobs. The federal government vastly increased funds for child care and severed ties between the Medicaid program and welfare, so poor children could continue to receive health coverage even though their parents were working.
A year later, Congress created the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), a multi-billion dollar effort to provide medical coverage for children whose parents made just enough to disqualify them for Medicaid.
Since the welfare law's enactment, falling food stamp and Medicaid rolls have raised concerns that states have erred too far on the side of reducing all their caseloads. That alarm was magnified when federal judges ruled that New York and Michigan had denied food stamps to families in violation of federal law.
Since 1996, the food stamp program has shrunk by nearly a third. The number of poor families receiving Medicaid has also dropped, although new reports indicate the states have begun to reverse that decline.
Although two million children are now enrolled in CHIP and a tripling of state and federal child care assistance has brought services to 1.5 million children, critics charge the states have dragged their feet in implementing those programs, as well.
"The analogy I have made is to Y2K," said Lissa Bell, co-author of the National Campaign's report. "The government was worried about Y2K and it didn't have a Y2K problem. It could do that with these programs too."
For this, the first of what it promises will be a series of tests of these support programs, the National Campaign recruited 150 low-income families to apply for aid in six states: Oregon, South Carolina, Washington, Idaho, Arkansas and Montana.
Grassroots organizations within each state decided which programs to test based on the complaints they had received. Families in Oregon and South Carolina applied for food stamps. In Arkansas and Montana, parents tested CHIP and Medicaid. In Washington and Idaho, families sought child care assistance.
Among the stories cited in the report are:
- A pregnant woman in Montana was told she must wait six months before she could receive Medicaid. Federal law does not permit a waiting period for Medicaid.
- A homeless father living in a shelter with his son in Oregon was not screened for expedited food stamps, in violation of federal law. He should have received aid within seven days, but instead waited more than a month.
- A single mother in Washington was denied child care assistance for her two-year-old twins even though without it she could not attend the job-search classes required by the state's welfare program.
- A Montana couple with four children were denied Medicaid because of their assets but never told about CHIP.
The National Campaign plans to release individual reports for each state, but so far has only made available its findings for Oregon. In Oregon, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently ranked highest in the nation in incidence of hunger, 25 families applied for food stamps and the advocacy group, Oregon Action, followed them through the process.
Almost half the families said the state's application, at 16 pages, was too long and confusing. More than half the families were not screened for expedited service. Many applicants who tried to schedule interviews were told to return the next day.
"I think the service we provide is not reflective of what these individuals have experienced," said Jim Neely, who oversees the food stamp program for the Oregon Department of Human Resources.
"We have no interest in reducing the welfare rolls," Neely said.
Neely said his department was taking some of the report's charges seriously. He said the state is currently reviewing all of its food stamp guidelines and its application form and is considering a change in policy that would make it easier for parents to make appointments at their local offices.
Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, and the Health Care Financing Administration, which oversees Medicaid and CHIP, have urged the states to increase their outreach efforts to eligible families. HCFA has gone so far as to order states to go back through their caseloads and contact families who have left welfare that may still be eligible for Medicaid. Both organizations are also now conducting state-by-state reviews of how the programs are run.