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ALAN POGUE Out of Touch Why Texas’ welfare system doesn’t work BY BRETT CAMPBELL s HEILA FOSCETTE HAS BEEN on welfare for the last five years, and she’s seen it all. The Austin resident has made repeated trips to the welfare office, only to be ignored by disrespectful caseworkers. She’s fought the many screw-ups the welfare bureaucracy makes and survived until they were rectified. She’s had to report the smallest gifts, justify every penny of income, put up with employment counselors who conduct a “job search” by flipping through the Yellow Pages. She’s had to give up her health insurance and child care benefits to take a job that pays less than welfare. She even had to quit college because the state refused to continue benefits after she completed 60 hours of classes. “Once I was about to run out of food, I had no money, my case was screwed up,” Foscette remembered. “My caseworker wouldn’t even look at me. I said, ‘Please help me. My kids need to eat. I need money to go buy some sanitary napkins because it’s that time of the month.” The caseworker didn’t bat an eye. “That’s not my job,” Foscette recalls him saying. Sheila Foscette isn’t alone. Thousands of Texans on welfare have been ordered to find work or lose their benefits and they have run headlong into a dizzying array of rules and regulations that makes it virtually impossible for them to fill out a form, let alone find a job. For years, the state made applicants for public aid fill out long, confusing forms that baffled even legal-aid lawyers. It forced every applicant to put down a permanent address even as the wave of homelessness in the 1980s put thousands of Texans out on the streets. It forced families to break up in order to receive Aid to Families with Dependent The bureaucratic maze prevented many poor families from getting help to get back on their feet. A 1988 report by the Southern Governors Association found that Texas had the highest rate of applicants denied assistance in the nation \(50 percent with three-quarters of them denied for “failure to comply with applicants were denied help because a former landlord or disgruntled former employer either refused or couldn’t be bothered to fill out required forms detailing the applicant’s housing and employment record. By enacting policies that so .defy common sense, the state has created a tangled welfare system that does little to help the 2.5-million Texans who live in poverty. The welfare bureaucracy has lost touch with the people it is supposed to serve. Now that the Legislature is finally beginning to restructure its humanreviewing the failed policies of the past can teach important lessons for those planning policies for the future. Hard-Ass State Texas has always been stingy when it comes to helping the poor. The state consistently ranks among the most miserly in virtually every category of public assistance. It provides AFDC to only 840,000 of the 2.5 million people in need. For a mother and three children, the maximum grant is $221 a month, which doesn’t include rent, utility payments, or anything else. \(The average family on welfare might receive a comparable additional grows greater by the day; some human-services advocates predict that new census figures will reveal as many as a million more Texans in poverty. “Texas is paying people an AFDC grant that’s 32 percent of what’s deemed to be the need,” said Cascell Noble, advocacy coordinator at Texas Legal Services Center, an Austin state-supported program that provides training and litigation support for legal aid programs. “And that standard of need is outmoded,” Noble added, because it doesn’t adequately account for the increased cost of such items as housing. “Since 1969, AFDC benefits have fallen 23 percent against the cost of living,” reports Jeff Skarda, a legal aid attorney in Houston who represents AFDC clients. These low figures betray a phenomenon that underlies the state’s out-of-touch welfare system. “Texans don’t like ‘welfare,” said Roger Gette, a Dallas legal-aid attorney who represents welfare clients. Moreover, “It’s typical of Texan culture that we blame the person who has the problem,” said Debbie Tucker of the Texas Council on Family Violence, who has long been involved in humanservices issues. “We say, ‘They wouldn’t be poor if they would just pull themselves up.’ We insulate ourselves from problems we don’t know how to solve [by blaming] the victim.” The conservative Texas Legislature reflects this anti-welfare bias, imposing stingy policies and petty requirements. “The tone is set at the Legislature,” said one former Department of have liberal interpretations of federal programs. Look at AFDC there’s only been one change in the ’80s [in which the state elected to raise benefits]. This has been a hardass state.” 4 SEPTEMBER 6, 1991