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Welfare for the Poor, Not the Caseworkers

Liberal defenders of the welfare state like to present themselves as defenders of the poor.

Recently, however, some left-leaning lawmakers have started on a course that could put special interests ahead of the needs of poor Americans.

Let’s look to Indiana. Its outdated welfare bureaucracy does little to serve the needs of the state’s low-income residents. Caseworkers still use paper and manual processes to gather information from applicants for programs like Medicaid, food stamps and welfare. In fact, they spend more time filling out paperwork than they do using their experience to help clients.

Sadly, they often get that paperwork wrong. Caseworkers make errors in 12 percent of food stamp and 26 percent of welfare applications. That means that many residents who should get aid do not, while applicants who aren’t entitled to handouts to collect them anyway.

This bureaucratic mess hurts welfare recipients.

Moreover, the system forces them to apply for benefits or verify their eligibility in person during work hours. Other states allow applicants to apply over the phone or online, and provide 24-7 access so clients do not have to take time off work to sign up. Not Indiana. Applicants must travel to different offices to apply for benefits from different programs, meaning even more time off work.

Unsurprisingly, polls show that most welfare recipients in the state are frustrated. But they’re also stuck. Indiana ranks dead last in moving welfare recipients off the dole and into self-sufficiency. Indiana’s bureaucracy has failed its lowest income residents.

To fix these problems, the state of Indiana is now trying to bring its welfare application offices into the 21st century. Caseworkers will use computer records to track their clients. Applicants will soon be able to apply, and provide necessary information, online or over the telephone instead of visiting a caseworker. They will be able to sign up for all programs at one office.

Outside contractors will handle much of the paperwork and document processing, leaving caseworkers free to use their expertise to help move their clients off welfare.

These are common-sense reforms that could improve the lives of welfare recipients and help move them towards self-sufficiency. However, the project involves transferring 1,500 state employers to the private sector. Government unions vehemently object to any form of privatizing, because it means fewer potential members. Thus, the American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees strongly opposes the modernization effort.

To its credit, the state of Indiana seems to be more concerned with the well-being of its welfare recipients than it is with maintaining the size of the state’s bureaucracy. It has moved ahead with the modernization project. Yet some members of Congress are trying to stop the reform in its tracks.

Title IV of the Farm Bill reauthorizes the national food stamps program. Tucked away in the legislative language is a section that would require states to use government employees in all official communications with food stamp applicants.

That seemingly innocent requirement would prevent private-sector employees from verifying the accuracy of documents that applicants provide, and would effectively kill Indiana’s welfare modernization program by returning the entire system to the state bureaucracy that failed welfare recipients in the first place.

Modernizing Indiana’s bureaucracy would improve the lives of welfare recipients. Too bad that many in Congress are listening instead to powerful public sector unions.

This isn’t surprising, since unions have political clout and welfare recipients don’t. Nevertheless, Congress should reconsider. Welfare recipients deserve better than caseworkers who spend most of their time fumbling paperwork. They need caseworkers who can focus on helping them achieve financial independence.

James Sherk is Bradley Fellow in Labor Policy at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).