The District of Columbia's welfare rolls error rate remains among the highest in the country because the city's Department of Human Resources adds new ineligible and overpaid recipients to its rolls faster than it removes old ones, according to the Senate testimony of a lawyer for welfare clients.
Stephen G. Ryan, who has assisted in the legal effort to have welfare applications processed on time, last week took up the cause of increasing the accuracy in the procedures, when he testified before the Senate District appropriations subcommittee.
Ryan said DHR's 1978 budget request for 58 new intake workers and 180 new recertification staffers is backward and should be reversed. Some or all of the positions sought for the purpose of eliminating welfare errors when persons apply for welfare, Ryan told subcommittee chairman Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.)
The testimony gave a fresh perspective to the long standing welfare errors dialogue between the city and Congress. Year after year, Congress has approved new staff and funds for DHR so ineligibles could be removed from the rolls. Yet, the problem has persisted and escalated.
Ryan's testimony was based on evidence from hearings last January in a contempt of court case against DHR for its backlog of illegally delayed welfare applications. The statement came just as Leahy and others were grumbling that DHR's credibility on the promises to purify the rolls is running out.
"Why in heaven's name does this continue?" as exasperated Leahy asked of acting DHR director Albert Russo. The city has made "periodic statements since 1972 that it's going to get on top of this," Leahy reminded Russo.
Since 1973, DHR's error rates in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) have increased from 24.5 per cent ineligibles to 26.5 per cent. The rate of overpayments has jumped from 10.9 per cent to 14.7 per cent, Ryan stated.
These increases occured despite the 136 additional recertification workers that Congress approved for DHR during that period, Ryan said.
The problem, according to Ryan, is that DHR has emphasized "highly publicized, impressively funded and heavily staffed recertification programs" in response to congressional and federal government pressure to purify the rolls.
At the same time, an "overburdened," "demoralized" and dwindling intake staff continued to make more mistakes on initial application processing, Ryan said. He said the problems these workers face also are the bases for a backlog of nearly 1,000 illegally delayed welfare applications which DHR only recently eliminated under threat of contempt penalties.
Ryan was one of the Neighborhood Legal Services Program (NLSP) attorneys who filed the contempt motion before U.S. District Court Judge Aubrey E. Robinson. Robinson in 1974 ordered DHR to process applications within the federally mandated 45 days.
Ryan and NLSP attorney Gerald Von Korff last week asked Judge Robinson to impose penalties for the contempt findings he issued in the case against DHR officials and mayor Walter E. Washington. At least 59 applications wer illegally delayed even as DHR was announcing its full compliance with Robinson's order at an April 7 news conference, the layers charged.
Robinson in a hearing on the matter Monday made clear his disapproval of both the public announcement and the department's reliance on recertification rather than accurate intake procedures.
"Recertification should be much easier if it's done right the first time by people who know what they are doing and have the time, expertise and opportunity," Robinson told DHR officials in court.
The judge warned that if they have to "step up" their recertification efforts because of City Council or congressional actions, "it's not going to be at the expense of applications (processing)."
Assistant city corporation counsel Mellie H. Nelson told the judge that the 59 applications which NLSP claimed were delayed when Russo announced DHR's full compliance with the order, had been delayed by failures on the part of applicants to present required information on time and not the fault of workers.
Von Korff contended that the explanation was "incredible." The agency as recently as last week said it had no way of knowing which applications in its records have been "abandoned" by clients, he said.
Robinson ordered DHR to return on June 15 with full information on the number of delays attributable to client failures.
The judge also issued a veiled warning against public announcements by DHR o fmatters to be determined in court, as in Russo's April 17 news conference.
"This is the public's business we are about and we've got nothing to hide, but let's determine it in this court room and not in the press," Robinson said.
Ryan's congressional testimony also noted that Congress last year took $3.5 million out of DHR's financial assistance base, as an incentive to the agency to remove the erroneous payments. Ryan said that cut punished the deserving as well as ineligible recipients, and that the money should be restored this year.
Russo, when he learned that Ryan was urging a rearrangement of the additional welfare staff requested, said he would oppose any changes in the projected use of those workers.
DHR will be able to reduce its error rates only if Congress approves the requested funds, Russo said.