Commentary

'Procedural' Denials Limit Welfare's Reach

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A recent report by the North Carolina Child Advocacy Institute raises a disturbing question that casts doubt on the wisdom of current national policy toward the poor.

Results of a new study indicate that fewer than half of North Carolina's poor children receive benefits from federal programs designed to provide life's basic necessities to the "truly needy."

The report reveals that while 22 percent of the state's children live in poverty, less than half receive federal support through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children, food-stamp, or Medicaid programs. North Carolina's infant-mortality rate is among the highest in a nation that leads the industrialized world in infant deaths. And new data indicate that the problem is worsening in North Carolina. Why do so few of these desperately poor children receive the assistance that they so obviously need and deserve?

The answer lies within the national system that is designed to provide a "safety net" for our poor and most vulnerable children. The present federal philosophy toward the operation of safety-net programs for the poor provides a classic example of administrative overkill, governmental insensitivity, and the careless misapplication of the concept of quality control.

A new national study, sponsored in part by the Southern Governors Association and the Southern Legislative Conference, found that thousands of poor people eligible for welfare and Medicaid benefits fail to get help because of problems associated with their applications. More than a third of all applicants fail to get assistance, but only one-fourth of those denied are rejected because they earn or own too much according to program guidelines.

"A great deal of the problem is paperwork," said Sarah Shuptrine, author of the report. "Making application has become a process that is more concerned with verification and keeping ineligible people off welfare than in helping people become eligible."

Ms. Shuptrine was the executive assistant for health and human services under former Gov. Richard W. Riley of South Carolina. Her firm, Sarah Shuptrine and Associates located in Columbia, S.C., found that nearly ten million applicants were denied benefits during 1986.

The study also revealed that denials for procedural reasons have increased by 75 percent in safety-net programs since 1980. This was a period during which the states were under enormous federal pressure to remove ineligible people from the rolls.

National policy should be refocused toward the original goal of the safety-net programs, which is to assist the poor with basic necessities while helping them toward self-sufficiency through employment and training-focused services.

Welfare officials in Virginia Beach, Va., in Delaware, and in Montgomery County, N.C., are implementing successful efforts showing that such an approach can work. Welfare workers help their clients develop self-esteem and move toward self-sufficiency through job training and employment.

Virginia Beach officials report that clients leave the first interview with a new sense of hope and purpose. This attitudinal change has surprising staying power, and it is reinforced by agency staff during subsequent contacts with the client.

The recent enactment of federal welfare-reform legislation buttresses services to help welfare clients move toward self-sufficiency. However, the legislation does nothing to address wasteful red tape and procedural barriers that deny benefits to the truly needy.

Bold national leadership toward welfare simplification is needed from the Congress, the White House, national advocacy groups, and state and local welfare administrators. Some will no doubt argue that we cannot afford these reforms, but the reality is that we cannot afford not to make them.

Change must start now, because America can't wait any longer for a solution to the tragic problem of child poverty. Welfare simplification now tops America's public-policy agenda. The future of our children--and indeed our nation--may well hinge on our immediate action.

Vol. 8, Issue 19, Page 24

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