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System Fails Welfare Recipients in Chicago Area

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

On paper, Illinois is one of the most successful states at getting people off welfare. Since the federal Welfare Reform Law of 1996, Illinois has posted the third-largest reduction in families receiving assistance. More than 241,000 families were on the state's rolls a decade ago; today, the number is closer to 42,000. Many of these people found jobs, but a new study of Chicago welfare recipients suggests the drop may also have a lot to do with red tape. NPR's Rachel Jones reports.

RACHEL JONES reporting:

When people have problems getting their public aid benefits in Chicago, Claudia Lanuza is the first to hear about it. When she checks her voice mail every morning at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, there are dozens of calls from frustrated people.

(Soundbite of Touch-Tone; recording)

Unidentified Computerized Voice: You have 40 new messages and no saved messages.

Ms. CLAUDIA LANUZA (Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago): Usually, the callers are either crying or screaming.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Computerized Voice: To listen to new messages, press one.

(Soundbite of Touch-Tone; recording)

Unidentified Woman #1: I'm calling because the Public Aid Department denied my food stamp application. And the second person in my household is 83, and she is disabled, and we need some food stamp assistance.

(Soundbite of Touch-Tone)

JONES: Often Lanuza's is the first friendly voice callers have heard in weeks or months of calling public aid offices across the city. As the voice of the Public Benefits Hotline, the baby-faced 20-year-old sports a Hello Kitty necklace and is painstakingly polite while returning calls and gathering information.

Ms. LANUZA: OK. And the problem that you're having, please?

Unidentified Woman #2: They said because I'm getting Social Security that they cut my benefits.

JONES: Lanuza takes down their information and passes it along to the student interns and lawyers who staff the hotline.

Ms. LANUZA: Usually, their main complaint is that the caseworkers don't help, that they don't answer their phone, that they're rude. And I try to be as understanding as I can and I write down the information, because there's not much I can do but open the cases and make sure that they're heard through me.

JONES: Lanuza may well be speaking with some of the same people being counted as part of the Illinois Department of Human Services' reduced welfare case load. State officials say the numbers drop because more people further their education or found jobs, but researchers say there's more to it than that.

Professor EVELYN BRODKIN (University of Chicago): Under the auspices of welfare reform, many people lost access to benefits regardless of whether they had work to replace it or, in this case, regardless of whether they were still eligible to receive them.

JONES: Evelyn Brodkin is a professor at the University of Chicago. She was lead researcher on the study of welfare hot lines calls received between August of 2000 and July of 2001. Brodkin says the study revealed widespread disorganization, miscommunication and processing hassles.

(Soundbite of door opening)

JONES: On this day, a former teacher who's a walk-in client at the hotline seems to typify the stories that the researchers heard.

Ms. QUEEN KAI-SEARLES: I'm Queen Kai-Searles(ph), and I'm a schoolteacher. And I was placed on an unpaid mandatory medical leave, and that is why I'm attempting to receive benefits at this time.

JONES: Under welfare reform, people like Searles have to constantly keep their caseworkers informed about how much money they make, whether they found work and how often. After Searles found a part-time job, her food stamps were cut, but after two weeks, her job ended. For a while, she had no food for herself and her two children. Now, she says, she may lose her home.

Ms. SEARLES: And in the process, I've become very destitute, and I have property and that property is in foreclosure now.

JONES: The researchers say clients like Searles lost hours of work on their low-wage jobs going to public aid offices to prove their eligibility only to have documents disappear. State officials agree that there have been some problems.

Ms. MARTHA ARNOLD(ph) (Director, Human Capital Development, Illinois Department of Human Services): But the reality is we don't have the intensity of staff to work with all families to the extent that they need to be worked with.

JONES: Martha Arnold is director of Human Capital Development at the Illinois Department of Human Services. She says caseworkers are overburdened; some handling more than 100 cases each. But, she says, the department has improved since the study was done and that the agency meets its mandate.

Ms. ARNOLD: We serve 1.8 million families across the state of Illinois every year. Not serving one family well is not OK, but the majority of the time, we still get it right, and I stand by that statement.

JONES: And Arnold believes that even if there are administrative problems, they aren't bad enough to keep people who really need help from seeking it because their department's doors are always opened. Still, the hotline calls keep coming.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Woman #3: (Spanish spoken)

JONES: Rachel Jones, NPR News.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Woman #3: (Spanish spoken) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Jones
Rachel Jones reports on education, social policy, and welfare reform issues at NPR. She has also covered children’s health and development, as well as well as racial disparities in health care.