If You Need Help... | Essay | Chicago Reader

If You Need Help... 

An underfunded hot line is the only guide to confusing new welfare rules.

By Ben Joravsky

If You Need Help...

It was in the name of putting the jobless back to work that Governor Edgar and his Republican legislative allies drafted new welfare legislation last spring. It's too early to tell if they're achieving their goal, but one thing's certain: the haste with which they passed the laws has left virtually everyone baffled as to what they mean.

Many people--from TV producers to recipients--have been getting their information from a hot line operated by the Public Welfare Coalition, a not-for-profit advocacy group. But the hot line's running out of money, and if it shuts down recipients will be forced to depend on the often hostile state welfare bureaucracy.

"In many ways the state's not interested in giving people information about the programs available--they're only interested in cutting people from these programs," says Sharron Matthews, the coalition's executive director. "We're getting more calls than ever--about 30 percent more than last year--and there's more of an urgency in the voices of the people who are calling. They're on the edge."

The hot line's operated by two employees--only one full-time--who handle more than 1,500 calls a year. The coalition receives only limited funding from the city and nothing from the state or feds, so Matthews must raise the bulk of the hot line's $50,000 budget from contributions. She's hoping that some of the television producers who've turned to the hot line for information will help out. "We get calls from all sorts of people. We got a call from the producers of ER--they wanted to be on top of things as to what impact medicaid cuts are having. We get calls from other countries. They tell us that calling the state's like entering a maze--you go from one official to the other, and you can't get a direct answer."

Much of the confusion stems from changes adopted in the spring of 1995, when state Republicans, emulating Newt Gingrich, vowed to crack down on welfare. As Gingrich and his local followers saw it, cutting welfare was actually doing the poor a favor--by making aid humiliating to seek and difficult to obtain, they were going to force the poor to work.

But in their haste they promulgated rules that made no sense or contradicted their intended purpose. For instance, many changes were made in the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program, which has roughly 750,000 recipients statewide: the provisions of the bill had titles such as Teen Parents Live at Home, Teen Parents Stay in School, Personal Responsibility, and Paternity Establishment as Condition of Public Assistance.

The Paternity Establishment provision requires women to reveal the identity of their childrens' fathers, in the hope of forcing deadbeat dads to support their children. But Matthews says the law strikes hardest at the deserted mothers and children. "We agree that there's a problem of people not supporting babies like they should. But the way the system's set up, it discourages a mother from revealing who the father is. I'll give you an example. Say you and I are married and have kids, but we get divorced. We go to court, the judge rules you have to pay $300 in child support. Under the old law, if I go on aid your child support goes to the state, and they give me what they call a pass-through of $50 a month. That's it. The rest of the money goes to the state. We've been trying to increase it to $100 a month. Under the new law, if I don't identify the father, neither I nor the child will get any aid for life."

Another controversial provision is Welfare to Work, which requires AFDC parents whose children are 13 or older to regularly look for jobs and take any job they can get. "In principle it looks fine--if the state was set up like a headhunter," says Matthews. "But they give you $20 each month, and you have to come up with 20 different job leads. You do this for eight weeks. If you're unsuccessful they're supposed to find a job for you. But where is the state going to find them a job? They don't have any connections. Now they're seeking a federal waiver to terminate all cash aid for families after five years--as if all these mothers and fathers will be working. Be realistic. Those jobs aren't there. This isn't reform--this is punishment.

"I'm not saying I don't want mothers to go to work. Of course I do. But it takes up-front resources, it takes day care and transportation. They also have to think about what they're doing to people who work for minimum wage. The state would probably like to allow employers to hire welfare recipients for subminimum wage, as Wisconsin has proposed. That would displace the working poor. There are serious ramifications to these changes. Is anyone paying attention?"

The real issue, says Matthews, is creating jobs. "You can't expect people to work if there are no jobs. There was a recent study by the Urban League and Northern Illinois University that showed that there are four people out there trying to compete for every one entry-level job. We call that a job gap. You're not helping people by forcing them off of aid if there are no jobs. You're just creating despair and confusion."

She says that confusion is heard in the voices of people who call the hot line. "We have people calling and they say, 'I'm in a job-training program, but the state says I have to leave it and join their job-training program. What do I do?' Or people will call with baby-sitting problems. The state's supposed to pay for baby-sitting costs so the mother can look for work. Typically we get calls where the state's two months behind in paying the baby-sitters. The baby-sitters quit. The mother stays with the kids, and the state rules she's ineligible. Now what do you do?"

Another controversial change was made in the dental and optometric benefits the poor receive through medicaid. "They won't pay for glasses or new teeth," says Matthews. "There was total confusion. Are poor people not supposed to see? Now the state says, 'If it looks like they'll get a job we'll pay for their glasses.' Well, how are they going to get a job if they can't see?"

The new law also limited medicaid coverage for nursing-home care. As a consequence the hot line is getting calls from people who don't fit the stereotype of welfare recipients. "About 75 percent of public assistance in Illinois goes for medicaid," says Matthews. "We get calls from middle-class white people who want to know what they have to do to qualify for medicaid to help pay for nursing-home costs. The state also cut hospice payments. In other words, they wouldn't pay for you to have someone die in a humane setting--even though it costs far less than dying in a hospital. That makes no sense--they were spending far more money to force people to die in a hospital. They reversed this in October, but we got dozens and dozens of calls over that.

"We had people calling us with questions regarding epilepsy and high blood pressure. They wanted to know, under the new rules were they sick enough to qualify for payments? One man called, he said he had a progressive eye disease and he needed an operation, but the state wouldn't give him his coverage, because they were investigating to see if he was eligible. They took a year to determine if he was eligible. During that time he lost all of his sight in one eye and part of it in the other. He was lost in the bureaucracy. There are so many stories like his. We hear them every day on the hot line. There are hundreds of people lost in the bureaucracy and looking for help."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Sharron Matthews by Jon Randolph.

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