Longform

Welfare That Doesn't Work

This is a time for action. It's a time to move beyond rhetoric and cosmetics. It's a time to take bold steps to ensure that children get whatever help they need to grow physically, emotionally and mentally into healthy and happy adults. My vision is of an Arizona that leads the nation in our commitment to children--measured not only in resources, but in results. That is what I intend to achieve when I'm elected governor, and I invite you to join me. A commitment to children is not found by partisan lines, it is simply the right thing to do.

--J. Fife Symington III,
Republican candidate for governor,
October 1990, at a debate sponsored
by the Children's Action Alliance

and moderated by Marion Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund

Fast forward political light-years to May 1995.
On a roll after his reelection the previous fall, Governor Symington has been asked to give the keynote address at a conference sponsored by Empower America, the political think tank led by conservative luminaries William Bennett and Jack Kemp.

The speech is titled "Arizona As a Laboratory for Change." This time, Symington speaks not of a commitment to kids, but of a commitment to tax cuts, states' rights and the Contract With America.

"We are seeing a revolution in the literal sense--a revolving back to first principles, a restoration of balance, a belief in limited government and unlimited opportunity," the governor says. "Here in Arizona, the story is the same, with a few more chapters already on the books."

The Republican revolution did start earlier in Arizona than in much of the country. There is a track record related to the Symington administration's experiments in Contract With America-style reform. In the social-welfare sector, that record charitably can be described as disastrous.

The Department of Economic Security is the agency responsible for administering state and federal programs for abused and neglected children, the poor, the elderly and the developmentally disabled in Arizona.

Any dispassionate assessment of this agency's performance must acknowledge that DES was a bureaucratic mess before Symington took office. Its books were unauditable. The agency was underfunded and overworked. And the Symington administration has brought some level of efficiency and order to DES--particularly in the area of child-support enforcement.

But a review of resources and results--to use the governor's own reform vernacular--clearly demonstrates that, when it comes to the state's disenfranchised, the Symington administration and the Department of Economic Security have adequately addressed neither economics nor security. In fact, some of the most startling failures at DES have come in programs designed to cut welfare costs or to keep people off the dole entirely.

Interviews with legislators, advocates, DES employees and clients, as well as a review of state audits, privately commissioned surveys, federal reports, media accounts and studies by interest groups, show that DES is likely the most mismanaged agency in Arizona's executive branch.

Among other things, research shows that:
* Child Protective Services, a DES subagency, is now operating with only two thirds the number of caseworkers necessary to provide adequate services, according to DES testimony this fall before a legislative committee.

The results of inadequate staffing are evident in DES' track record: During Symington's administration, at least ten children have died--either after DES was warned of danger to the children or while the children were in the state's foster-care system. Meanwhile, a 1994 study shows, 30 percent of all reports of abuse in foster homes go uninvestigated by DES.

* Instead of funding programs aimed at reducing the government's overall welfare cost, the Symington administration--with help from the Legislature--has cut such programs. Since 1990, subsidies for child care for working parents have declined by 12 percent. And, at any given time, more than a thousand elderly and developmentally disabled people will have been waiting months for home-based services designed to keep them out of more expensive nursing homes.

* Despite the Republican focus on efficiency, Arizona has one of the nation's worst records in regard to welfare fraud. Fraud and mismanagement in the food-stamp and Aid to Families With Dependent Children programs cost the state tens of millions of dollars every year.

With large state and federal budget cuts looming, Arizona faces a choice: Make DES more efficient or cut welfare services that already are minimal in comparison to most states.

In November, Arizona did begin implementing a welfare-reform program that coincides with the Contract With America. The program is called EMPOWER--Employing and Moving People Off Welfare and Encouraging Responsibility.

Among other things, the program limits the number of children mothers can claim as beneficiaries while receiving payments from the federal Aid to Families With Dependent Children program. It allows welfare mothers to collect AFDC for only two years in a five-year period. Unwed mothers are required to live with their parents to qualify.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.