Tuesday, January 04, 2005

My other life... (What's Wrong With Welfare? Part I)

Yes... I lead a double life....

Well.... not quite like that. I am a mild mannered parish priest, but I am also a mild mannered supervisor for the Texas Works division of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (which was the Texas Department of Human Services until a few months ago).

I am often told that it seems a bit contradictory for me to be a conservative Republican who works with Food Stamps, Medicaid, and TANF (aka welfare), but you would probably be surprised at how conservative people are who work with these programs. When I began working for the agency back in 1992, I expected to be surrounded by bleeding heart liberals... and I suspect that this impression comes from those who are social workers (such as those who work in Child Protective Services). The difference between social workers (what they do) and case workers (what I do) is that social workers are advocates for people who are abused, neglected, etc –- and so this job tends to attract bleeding hearts, and their experiences in that capacity reinforce their views of the poor as victims, because the people they are dealing with usually are truly victims. Case workers determine what benefits people are eligible for, and in that capacity have to examine the household circumstances, listen to the answers to our questions, and try to make everything add up so that the people we certify get what they are actually eligible for. On their side of the equation, they are dealing with people who are clearly in need. On our side of the equation, we are dealing with people who say that they are in need… and may or may not actually be. Consequently, we see a lot of fraud and abuse of the system. This is not to say that we never encounter cases that touch our hearts, because of the genuine need we see. It is very satisfying on occasion to feel that we have helped people with the kind of needs that these programs were really designed for... it’s just that these cases are more exceptional than they should be.

I intend to post more about this is coming weeks, but suffice it to say that we often help people who are really in need, and we often help people who are really not. The system is flawed, but is better now than it was 10 years ago, prior to welfare reform. Most of the people I work with are Democrats, and the majority are minorities (this is true in my office, but is not true throughout the agency), and yet despite what you might think, most supported the parts of welfare reform that actually worked... because those of us who work with these programs are the most aware of the abuses of the program, and like most tax payers, do not like to see their tax dollars wasted. Also, most of the black folks I work with are more socially conservative than the average white person... yet they almost all vote Democrat, because they have been convinced that the Democrats are on their side, and the Republicans are not -- more on this in future, too.

As one of the few openly Republican people in my office, I have tried to defend the Republicans over the years, and sway my co-workers to believe that Republicans are not all money grubbing rich people who could care less about the poor or minorities. I think over the years I have made some headway, but what the Republicans in Texas have been doing with social services in the past 3 or 4 years has made that task a lot more difficult.

In short, they are trying to privatize these programs, and contract them out to for-profit corporations. Now, I have nothing against corporations making profits, but there is no profit motive when in comes to welfare, because welfare is essentially what happens when you give people stuff for nothing –- and this is not something that for-profit corporations have a lot of experience with. If we were talking about contracting out our functions to non-profit groups, such as the Salvation Army... then I think we would have something worth considering, but that is not what is on the table. What is actually in the works is bad for the people who receive these benefits, bad for people like me who administer them, and bad for the tax payers, because it isn’t going to work, and is going to be a boondoggle that will be much are harder to fix than it was to implement.

In future posts I will discuss why privatization of this kind is a bad idea, present alternative ways to reform the system, and talk about why real welfare reform is resisted not just by the advocates of the poor, but also by many powerful business interests. I will also talk more specifically about what has been going wrong in Texas, but to start things off I will refer the reader to an article in today’s Houston Chronicle that is discussing an on-going scandal that is tied up with the push to privatize welfare.

I have been trying to meet with my Republican State Senator (Jon Lindsay) and my Republican State Representative (Debbie Riddle) for the better part of a year now, but I regret to say that I have been more or less brushed aside. I figured that if I met with them, gave them the secret Republican handshake, and told them what was really going on, they would listen. I still hope that might be true, if I ever get them interested in listening to what I have to say to begin with. I have voted for them in the past, I voted for them again in the last election, and will vote for them in the future... because I believe moral issues, such as abortion and gay marriage are far more important; however, this is not an unimportant issue, and so I hope to use this blog to get at least some people to hear what's wrong with the system, and what's wrong with the current fixes that are in the works.

Click here for Part II: Let Them Eat Spam.