According to the 1996 welfare law, Gail Aska was a model recipient. Two years ago, the New York City resident got a job–without health insurance–and promptly informed her caseworker. Because the system took a while to register her change in status, she received two welfare checks, which she returned. Meanwhile, her son, who had spinal surgery a year before, needed a follow-up visit with a doctor. To her dismay, Aska discovered that the transitional Medicaid benefits she was supposed to be getting had been cut off. “The case-worker I talked to said my case had been closed because I hadn’t picked up my checks,” Aska recalls. “But I didn’t want to be sanctioned for getting checks when I had a job.”
Somehow Aska’s case had been miscoded. When she kept insisting that she had a right to transitional Medicaid, she was told she would get a date for a Fair Hearing, where the issue would be arbitrated. She waited for months and months. Finally, she gave up and applied for insurance for her son through a separate government-funded program she had heard about, CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program. “My son had some symptoms from the surgery that we needed to get checked out,” she said. “You don’t play around with that–you don’t wait for a Fair Hearing.”
Despite all the talk three years ago about “easing the transition from welfare to work,” the welfare law has if anything made that transition more difficult. Even for welfare recipients like Aska who are aware of their rights and savvy enough to insist on them, the always lumbering and inefficient system has transformed itself from a bureaucratic behemoth into a whirling dervish, cutting people’s benefits in a tangle of confusion that’s nearly impossible to correct. In interviews with legal aid attorneys, advocates for the poor, former welfare recipients, local community leaders, nonprofit researchers and charities, The Nation discovered that a new lawlessness reigns. Whether out of willful disregard or real misunderstanding, states are failing to fulfill their legal obligations to the poor.
After sixty years of the federal government controlling welfare as an entitlement program–everyone who applied and qualified got aid–the new block grants give states vast discretionary power in distributing cash assistance. But it’s not only cash benefits that have been arbitrarily denied. Safeguards written into the law–like making sure a family has health insurance, food stamps and daycare when Mom lands a minimum-wage, no-benefits job at Burger King–have gone largely unenforced. What has evolved instead is a system that pretends to offer such things but in practice withholds them with alarming frequency, vastly expanding the ranks of the working poor.
In 1997 an estimated 675,000 low-income people became uninsured as a result of welfare reform; the majority (62 percent) of those were children who in all likelihood never should have lost their insurance, according to a report by Families U.S.A. A South Carolina study found that 60 percent of former welfare recipients did not know a parent could get transitional Medicaid; nine states had no outreach efforts to inform parents that they could get childcare assistance after welfare. The states of Florida and New York have committed abuses so severe and blatant that former welfare recipients and applicants have filed lawsuits against them for refusing to give Medicaid and food stamp applications to eligible families.
“There used to be some standardization in how welfare recipients were treated and processed at welfare offices,” explains Deepak Bhargava, director of public policy for the Center for Community Change. “By eliminating the whole architecture of the old entitlement program, the federal government eliminated a lot of the existing protections for people.” Now, with no uniform processes in place, thousands of families never find out that they still qualify for health insurance, childcare or food stamps. Instead, they do without.