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Feature

Net Loss

State social services falter, just when state residents need them most

Frank Klein
Marylanders seeking help flood the Baltimore County office of the State Department of Social Services on a recent morning.

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 11/4/2009

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The strain is not only apparent in the faces of the people waiting for help. The staffers working behind the counters are besieged with people who are frustrated and tired of delays and lines and supervisors who don't return calls. Applications are lost, paperwork is not adequate, the wait time is unbearable.

"People keep coming, the applications are up, the number of caseworkers is down," says a worker, who comments before he has to help another waiting client. "It's gotten so, so bad."

According to Elyn Garrett Jones, deputy communications coordinator for the state Department of Human Resources (DHR), which administers the state's social services programs, the increase in applications has hit benefits caseworkers hard. In Baltimore County offices, for instance, caseworkers used to handle around 400 to 500 cases per worker; these days, she says, it's more like 1,000 cases per worker.

"We're seeing people coming through our doors that we've never seen before," Jones says. "We're reaching out to folks because we know this is a difficult time, and that's working, and because it is working, we have the other end of things where we are seeing problems trying to serve all the folks we are seeing."

In November 2008, The Washington Post reported that across the nation, the number of Americans relying on welfare programs was rising rapidly, along with the rate of unemployment and increases in the cost of food.

For the first time in history, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported, the number of Americans using the food-stamps program was expected to break 30 million for the month of November, surpassing a record of more than 29 million set in November 2005 when Hurricane Katrina swept the Gulf Coast, leaving thousands homeless, jobless, and hungry and causing a spike in applications for emergency food and cash assistance.

Over the course of the past decade, the number of food-stamp recipients has never stopped growing, from an annual average of just over 17 million in 2000 to more than 21 million in 2003 and 26 million in 2007. Annual data for 2009 is not yet available, but as of June, the USDA was reporting that more than 35 million Americans were using the program that month, up more than 20 percent from June 2008.

Though food stamps are a federal program, they are administered at the state level. That means that, while federal funding for the benefits themselves may be plentiful, it's incumbent on the states to pay for staffing and administration of those benefits. According to testimony from state Department of Human Resources secretary Brenda Donald, made before the Senate Budget and Tax Committee in March, the richest state in the nation signed up 47,000 new people for food stamps in 2008, bringing the grand total of food-stamp recipients in Maryland in early 2009 to 428,000. In addition, Donald told the committee, requests for temporary cash assistance were up by 11 percent during the first part of 2009, and enrollment in programs that help households cover their energy bills had increased 18 percent.

Meanwhile, the operating budget of the Family Investment Administration, which runs the food stamp, temporary cash assistance, work opportunities, and other assistance programs, was $873,463 in 2008; in 2009, it was operating on $827,979. Though its budget is projected to be 14.4 percent higher in 2010--$947,288--the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization that provides analyses of state budget and tax issues, says that staffing in the Family Investment Administration has steadily decreased since 2007, when it had 2001 positions, to early 2009, when it had 1,848. "While the overall budget reflects growth," the institute says in its Family Investment Administration budget fact sheet, "it does not consider department-wide across-the-board reductions."

The 2010 budget seeks to permanently eliminate another 200 agency jobs. Meanwhile, caseloads continue to grow. "Simply put," the fact sheet reads, "although benefits may be plentiful, staff resources are few."

And the Department of Human Resources does not refute that it's been difficult to meet the need in this economy.

"We have seen a substantial increase in the number of applications over the past year," Jones acknowledges. "This is a direct result of the economic downturn. The increase in applications has made it difficult to always meet the processing times."

Donald's testimony before the Senate committee relayed that message as well.

"With the weakened economy, the truth is clear," she said. "The poor in Maryland are getting poorer, and the DHR has no doubt struggled to keep up with the increasing demand for our services. As our economy changes, so must DHR to meet the needs of people who rely on our services to get back on their feet."

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