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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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In June 2008, in response to declining tax revenues, the Maryland General Assembly approved more than $50 million in cuts to state agency funding, and $1.8 million of that was made up by maintaining a hiring freeze at the state Department of Human Resources that prevented it from hiring for any open positions except for child-protective services workers.

At the time, according to the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute, more than 80 percent of the agency's 200 vacancies were income-maintenance specialists and supervisors--the individuals who work directly with social services clients to process applications for public assistance. The impact is clear, says Neil Bergsman, the institute's director.

"As of last winter the number of employees in social services offices was way down and a lot of the groups that we work with that deal directly with clients were telling us that processing delays and errors had really gotten to unreasonable levels and were getting worse on a monthly basis," he says. "Particularly with food-stamp eligibility, which is very discouraging, because if you imagine being newly impoverished, needing help to buy food for your family and not being able to get it for a matter of months, what a perfectly awful situation."

"We have lots of data on how many people wait and wait and wait, and based on what we're seeing, about 4,000 to 5,000 applications are being delayed each month," says Carolyn Johnson, managing attorney for the Homeless Persons Representation Project. "Due to loss of staffing and loss of investment in these agencies over time, they don't have enough staff . . . and they are kind of behind the times on some efficiency-related processes that could make it easier and quicker for them to do their work."

According to data from the Department of Human Resources' Client Automated Resource and Eligibility System (CARES), compiled by the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal service to low-income individuals, the state average for timely processing of food-stamp applications as of January 2009 was just 83.2 percent.

Broken down to a county level, nine of the state's 24 counties were operating below that percentage. While Baltimore City, which is accustomed to a high social services caseloads, performed better than the average, processing 91 percent of applications in a timely fashion, neighboring Baltimore County only managed to process 71.8 percent of its food-stamp applications within the 30-day period. In January 2006, by comparison, the state was approving 85 percent of its applications on time, and Baltimore County was managing 80 percent. Of all counties that performed under the state average, only two--Prince George's and Charles--were doing worse in 2006. All the rest showed a marked decrease.

Perhaps even more telling than the percentages of delayed applications, though, is the data showing where the fault lies for those delays. Statewide, the data shows, 2,325 applications for food-stamps were delayed due to the fault of the social-services agency processing them; 1,993 applications were delayed due to fault of the client. In Baltimore County, 600 of the delayed applications were due to agency fault, while only 184 were delayed due to the client.

Things look even worse when it comes to applications for temporary cash assistance. Statewide, 81.6 percent of all applications were processed on time; in Baltimore County, that number drops to only 55.8 percent and 196 of those were delayed due to agency error; 114 were due to client error.

"Baltimore County is just a mess," says Peter Sabonis, Legal Aid's assistant director of advocacy for income security. "We met with them a while ago on this issue, and they said, 'Look, it's a confluence of factors, you know?' They lost people, but they couldn't fill the positions because there was a statewide hiring freeze. And it's exacerbated by further statewide cuts and they continue to freeze, then get rid of these positions. . . . The offices are swamped."

Sabonis says that Legal Aid represents a limited number of people who need help getting access to services they qualify for, but there are far more people requesting help than there are lawyers to help them.

"It's unconscionable, it's illogical," he says. "It seems to smack of a period where we didn't want people to get assistance, when the attitude was that these folks are just living off the system. Obviously, we're not in that period now. People need that assistance. People from all walks of life, all classes."

Clients whose applications are seriously delayed or unfairly denied can request administrative hearings, says Erika Woods, a fellow in the University of Baltimore's civil advocacy clinic, which also represents a limited number of individuals who wish to pursue legal recourse against social services.

"The problem is, there are regulations, there are rules," Woods says. "But there's no real enforcement of those rules."

If a client is late with an application or misses a meeting, she says, most times he or she is automatically cut off from their benefits and must apply all over again; if the state fails to complete its paperwork on time or misses a meeting, nothing happens--except that the client suffers. The University of Baltimore Civil Advocacy Clinic and Legal Aid are among a handful of organizations that offer pro-bono services to clients referred to them, but Woods repeats a familiar refrain: "The reality is that we can't accommodate the need."

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