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In Welfare Decisions, One Size No Longer Fits All

By Barbara Vobejda and Judith Havemann
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 30 1997; Page A01

As states propose their plans for implementing the welfare overhaul approved by Congress last year, it is clear that many of them have rethought a key principle of social policy: A welfare program that dispenses checks without reference to a recipient's personal circumstances is no longer suitable.

Caseworkers are being given the discretion to offer different kinds of assistance to different welfare families. In a number of states, for example, welfare offices and caseworkers are free to determine which welfare mothers must go to work, and how soon; which will be offered a one-time payment and which will be given ongoing benefits. In some states, caseworkers can decide how long a family can receive benefits.

This departure from a standardized system, like a flurry of other state activity in restructuring welfare, began to take root before passage of the federal law last summer, but it has accelerated enormously since – as states devise their plans to administer the welfare law in time to meet the July 1 deadline set by Congress.

The law required states to move half their caseloads into jobs within five years and set a time limit on how long any individual can receive benefits. And by ending the six-decade-old guarantee of benefits to eligible families, it signaled that no longer must states treat all needy people exactly the same.

The most obvious sign that the world of welfare is changing is a sharp decline in caseloads – 9 percent since last July and 20 percent over four years – which experts believe is the result of a healthy economy and these policy changes.

Less apparent to the outside world are changes in welfare offices across the country, where workers are now being told they can make their own decisions about what is best for an individual family.

Twenty-five states are instituting "diversion" programs, one-time payments meant to keep families from ever coming onto the welfare rolls. In some states, the payments are uniform, but in others, caseworkers can determine for each family that comes before them how much cash to hand out and whether families should also receive child-care subsidies and other assistance. In some states, including Virginia, families who accept a lump sum for staying off the rolls are barred from receiving welfare for a certain period of time.

Numerous states are requiring individualized "personal responsibility" contracts, written by recipients and caseworkers, that tailor the treatment of families by spelling out when adults must go to work and the length and type of training they will receive.

Thirteen states plan to pay lower benefits to welfare families moving in from states that offer less assistance, according to the National Governors' Association. While these "two-tiered" systems were considered illegal under the previous federal law, Congress attempted to change that in the new measure. This approach too could make for situations in which welfare families of identical size living next door to each other could receive different benefits.

All of this essentially rejects recent decades of welfare practice, which was built on a philosophy that standardized treatment was the best way to ensure equity.

"Our zeal not to be unfair had driven judgment out of the process, and you ended up with a cookie-cutter mentality," said Don Winstead, Florida's welfare reform administrator. But the change has also drawn critics who worry that caseworkers may not receive enough training before wielding such power over people's lives. They argue that the new discretion could bring a return to days when some poor families were turned away because of race or other prejudices among caseworkers.

"My concern is not over different approaches for different people, but whether it's done in a system where there are standards, or where, willy-nilly, caseworkers can do what they like," said Henry Freedman, an attorney with the Welfare Law Center in New York.

The goal may be individualized treatment, Freedman said, but "the reports we get are that, in fact, caseworkers are overloaded, undertrained and pushing participants through in a hasty, arbitrary manner once again."

This debate over the proper balance of equity and flexibility is being played out in the lives of individuals across the country as states embrace this new approach to delivering social services.

For Theresa Brown in rural West Virginia, this new latitude made it possible for her to receive a one-time state payment of $603 for car repairs, allowing her to take a job as a cook and keeping her off the welfare rolls.

For welfare recipient Lori Charboneau, who lives in the Salt Lake City area, it meant she could receive a year and a half of state-financed counseling for depression before she was expected to look for a job.

But for Sara Wethall, another Utah resident, it brought confusion and anger: She has been told she can no longer attend college and receive benefits, while some others in the state are being allowed to finish school.

Under the previous system, caseworkers simply calculated how much a family could receive each month, rarely focusing on the specific problems that kept adults from working.

But now, workers must immediately look for individual circumstances that could entitle applicants to special services or exemptions: Are they victims of domestic abuse? Or drug users? Are they disabled? Are their skills so low they could never support themselves?

"That is a big change from the past," said Jason Turner, executive director of the Center for Self-Sufficiency in Wisconsin. Caseworkers, he said, "were told to shut up and be quiet and issue the checks." The new authority invested in workers, he predicted, will transform the culture of welfare offices.

Robert A. "Buz" Cox III, director of social services for the city of Charlottesville, said some of the efforts afoot do require that caseworkers be adallowed wide latitude. "Some agencies may be reluctant. But you have to feel you hire good professional staff, train them well, then trust them," he said.

Freedman, from the Welfare Law Center, questions the wisdom of all that discretion, recalling anecdotes from earlier this century about East European immigrants who received lower benefits because caseworkers believed they were used to getting by on less than West Europeans.

"The big fear in my mind is that you could get many personal decisions based upon a personal dislike of the individual," he said. Caseworkers may be poorly trained, mean-spirited or simply overwhelmed from "dealing day after day with desperately needy, sometimes hostile people," he said.

Whether caseworkers have the training and time to handle the new demands has come up in Utah, which began experimenting four years ago with individualized plans to get every welfare recipient moving toward self-sufficiency.

"It is not even in the same universe what is expected of caseworkers" under the new individualized system, said Robin Arnold-Williams, director of the Utah Department of Human Services. "Some of our staff have not been able to make that transition."

She said the state has invested in extensive training for those caseworkers who are struggling with the new system, and it is now more likely to hire trained social workers than it was in the past.

Prim Burgie, a clinical social worker employed by the state of Utah, said she frequently sees caseworkers "from the old school. . . . Some people get into this kind of work because it's a power trip for them. They get these poor people in their office and put them down."

And the system allows inconsistency, said Gina Cornia, a welfare specialist at a Salt Lake City advocacy group known as Utah Issues. She said some caseworkers are telling recipients they must quit school and find a job, while others are allowing recipients to stay in school without losing benefits.

"They're telling them anything they want to tell them," Cornia said.

That new power rankles Sara Wethall, a 44-year-old mother who has been on welfare since 1993, when she and her husband divorced. Wethall, who has physical disabilities that limit her movement, just earned a two-year degree and wants to finish college and become a teacher. She said her caseworker initially told her she might be able to continue, but since has indicated she must find a job.

"To rip it away and say 'you take a minimum wage job' seems absurd," she said. "You can't go any further without a bachelor's."

Also, her caseworker has said the state would continue to subsidize her child care and medical coverage for three years while she is working. But if she could complete college, she argued, "I could be completely off the system in two years."

But that same kind of broad discretion allowed Lori Charboneau the time she needed to pull together psychologically and find a job.

Charboneau, a 34-year-old single mother, said she went through a period of "bad, deep depression," when "all I could do was to get out of bed." Her caseworker told her she could stay on welfare and postpone work while she received therapy.

So she began taking a drug to ease her depression and, for about 18 months, she saw her counselor once a week.

Eventually, she found an accounting job with the state and now is off welfare, but still receives a housing subsidy and help with child care.

"I wouldn't be where I am today" without the time for counseling, she said.

She figures even if she had been able to find work during that time, she would still be suffering from depression. "I would be worse off."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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