Welfare That Doesn't Work

Governor Symington has spoken of helping needy kids and improving the welfare system. His welfare agency, the Department of Economic Security, is famous for astonishing incompetence and children who die.

At the same time, congressional Republicans want to institute national welfare reform. They hope to eliminate entitlement programs like AFDC, which require states to provide matching funds, and create block grants instead. Block grants would give the states more control over delivery of welfare services.

And that is precisely what many longtime observers of Arizona's welfare agency say they fear.

Arizona is the Do-Over State. Every year, people from the East and Midwest head west for sunny weather and a fresh start in life, leaving networks of family and friends behind. Consequently, Arizona has a disproportionate share of social problems to address--poverty, suicide, divorce, child abuse.

The Department of Economic Security, the agency assigned to deal with these needy and troubled masses, receives a budget of $1.8 billion from more than 125 state and federal funding sources. With more than 9,500 employees who serve a million people a month, DES is Arizona's largest government agency and one of the largest businesses--public or private--in the state.

Although Symington regularly speaks of the need to run the government like a business, his administration hasn't run DES prudently or, at times, even rationally.

There are two exceptions to the general rule of DES mismanagement: child-support enforcement and financial recordkeeping.

A July 1995 performance review by the state auditor general says DES collections of child support from delinquent fathers have increased from $52 million in the 1992 fiscal year to $90 million in 1994. Arizona was recognized by the National Child Support Enforcement Association in 1994 for its improvements in support collections.

And the state auditor general issued clean opinions on the department's 1993 and 1994 financial reports--the first such sign-offs in years.

The available evidence, however, strongly suggests that those limited successes are aberrations rather than signs of improvement to come.

Under the Symington administration, DES' top leadership has changed nearly as often as Hillary Rodham Clinton's hairstyle. In the past five years, DES has had four directors. The current director, Linda Blessing, had no prior experience in public welfare. Her background is as an auditor.

Even with an auditor at the helm, DES apparently has not made progress in streamlining costs.

The state auditor general says DES pays consultants to perform tasks that could be handled internally at less expense.

A November 1995 audit of contracting practices revealed that DES spent more than $4 million in 1994 for consultant services. Auditors reviewed 14 consulting contracts and found that "consultants were often used to perform routine tasks or to replace DES managment."

One consultant was paid $90 an hour to manage a unit in the Division of Developmental Disabilities. The comparable DES manager is paid $27 an hour.

Another consultant managed staff members who were redesigning licensing rules. The cost: more than $136,000, or three times the cost of a DES project manager.

Meanwhile, Blessing and her staff can't seem to get a handle on fraud and mismanagement--the feds call that the "error rate"--in the welfare rolls.

Every year, food-stamp and AFDC error rates cost the state tens of millions of dollars. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that, in the 1994 budget year, food-stamp error rates were worse than they'd been in six years.

Since Symington has been in office, Arizona has ranked among the ten worst states in the nation for food-stamp error rates. And a study commissioned by DES in 1994 revealed that Arizona loses more than $60million a year because of AFDC and food-stamp fraud.

DES management problems affect the human--or is it inhuman?--side of Arizona's welfare operation. Advocates who work daily with DES complain that caseworkers are overworked, that administrators lack compassion. Barbara Hopkins, executive director of the Arizona Consortium for Children With Chronic Illness, says DES employees don't believe in the people they serve.

"They treat you as if you're the scum of the earth," she says.
Hopkins helps families maneuver DES' daunting web of services, many of which aren't integrated. That means the mother of an autistic child has to fill out different forms, in different departments, with different caseworkers, to get services for her child, job training for herself and food stamps for the family.

"What is the point of all these agencies being within that major department of the state if they can't coordinate together?" Hopkins asks.

Bill Jamieson, DES director under former governors Bruce Babbitt and Rose Mofford, can't forget Symington's words at the Children's Action Alliance debate in 1990. Jamieson helped write that speech. A self-described moderate liberal, he broke party rank to vote for Symington. Now he calls it the biggest political mistake of his life.

Jamieson says, "I kind of believed that he might be able to do for children's programs and social services in general, as a conservative Republican, what Nixon did by going to China. But instead, he's done to Arizona what Nixon did to the country.

"He's shown absolutely no commitment to any of the social welfare programs at all."

But disgust with DES transcends party boundaries.
State Representative Laura Knaperak, a Republican from Tempe, is viewed by many of her colleagues as a one-issue legislator. That issue is DES, and she's not happy with its performance.

Knaperak also is unhappy with Symington. She claimsthe governor has warned administrators at DES tokeep quiet about the agency's problems, averting negative publicity at any cost.

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