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Welfare applicants awash in sea of paper 75-minute visit: no check but many forms BALTIMORE CITY


On a scorching July morning, the Westwood Center, a welfare office in West Baltimore, is standing-room-only soon after the doors open at 8 a.m. At least 50 people have appointments for ongoing cases and, by 11 a.m., 70 more will have taken numbers to open new cases.

Diane Batson, 22, is one of the lucky ones, one of the day's first clients. Recently separated from her husband, this mother of three needs money, food stamps and help with her landlord. And she needs it as soon as possible.

An hour and 15 minutes later, she leaves, almost 30 forms in her wake. She does not have a check or food stamps in hand, although she can expect emergency stamps within a few days. Her worker, Pam Pope, will try to get Ms. Batson some money from an eviction-prevention program. But first, she needs another 30 minutes to process all the paper created by Ms. Batson's case.

Even in the electronic age, paperwork rules Maryland's welfare system. Clients may get their benefits through automated teller machines, but they need to fill out paper applications before they get their cards. They also sign "responsibility" statements, verify past employment, indicate how much rent they pay and assign the agency the right to track down child support on their behalf.

Mandated by federal and state regulations, this staggering paper trail monitors entitlement programs that last year distributed almost $800 million in state and federal cash assistance.

But the paperwork also clogs and slows the process, a revelation to the once-middle-class people forced into welfare offices during the recent recession. If paperwork were cholesterol, Maryland's welfare system would be headed for a quadruple bypass. Maryland's special welfare commission and President Clinton's welfare reform task force are looking at how the crush of paper may hamper social service agencies.

"What we have now is a system that's very fragmented, where a lot of different agencies are involved, with different pieces of paper and different requirements," said Melissa Skolfield, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "I think it is in everyone's interest -- the taxpayers' most of all -- to streamline all of that so we are not spending money unnecessarily, just on complexity."

But to date, reform actually has added paperwork to the process.

Since Maryland received permission to sanction those public assistance recipients who do not send their children to school or ensure they receive medical care, clients have to sign various forms agreeing to the experiment. The General Assembly also has added a nonmandatory community service program -- another sheet in triplicate to sign and return.

In Baltimore, where the Department of Social Services handles half of the state's approximately 80,000 welfare cases, the paperwork is so overwhelming that centers must close to clients every Wednesday for "paperwork" day. Workers like Ms. Pope, who oversee new cases, need a second day to meet strict federal deadlines.

"We can't be overdue, that's an error, on the Department of Human Resource's part, and the agency's part," said Ms. Pope, a woman with a soft voice and gentle manner.

An ambitious computer project eventually will allow workers to use less paper, but it is expected to take more time initially, as workers sit with the clients, entering information from a long application that clients now fill out alone.

A typical day

At the Westwood Center, North Avenue and Smallwood Street, the 60-person staff monitors more than 7,000 cases. On average, at least 1,600 clients will be seen each month, either for new cases or the mandatory six-month check-in. Still more clients will have emergency needs.

Ms. Batson's odyssey through the system began about 8 a.m., when she took a number at the door. While she waited, she filled out a 14-page application -- the new, improved form, written at a sixth-grade reading level. Only a few years ago, welfare applicants faced more than 20 pages, with a reading level appropriate for first-year college students. They needed a second form to apply for food stamps.

Even on the new form, the information requested is overwhelming in detail. Ms. Batson must list any assets or regular payments she receives, including stock dividends and "black lung" benefits. The questions about inheritances, trust funds, houses and other property never fail to amuse clients.

"They ask these ridiculous questions about boats and property and land," said Euphrasynia Andrews, a 23-year-old woman waiting for $10 in food stamps. "If we had land and property or a savings account, we wouldn't be here."

As Ms. Pope painstakingly led Ms. Batson through her interview, Ms. Andrews was one of several people in the crowded waiting room, waiting and fuming. As the morning wore on, the potential clients became increasingly frustrated by the long waits.

It didn't help to see someone arrive late, meet with a worker and then leave. The harried-but-patient receptionist tried to explain that cases were assigned by worker, and the wait depended on how quickly one's worker processed cases.

A well-dressed older woman paced furiously. Although she declined to give her name, she said she was a "government worker" there on her daughter's behalf. Her rage seemed to grow by the minute, and then she abruptly stalked out of the office.

"You just about have to move your furniture in here when you take a check from them," she muttered as she left.

Theresa Richardson, a one-time welfare recipient, had managed to stay off public assistance for eight years. Laid off from a day care job and ineligible for unemployment, she waited almost five hours for an interview, unsure if she would even qualify.

"I'll tell you why it's not like the Department of Motor Vehicles," she said. "At least you know when you go to the DMV, you're going to get what you need. You wait here three, four hours and then they give you the disappointing news."

But waiting, like paperwork, seems unavoidable. The demand for new cases cannot be predicted, although the beginning of the month is typically the busiest time. The center's district manager, Thomas J. Piscitelli, has no authority to approve overtime for his workers.

With new interviews taking at least an hour, one worker can see only six or seven clients a day. Those coming in to have their benefits renewed can be seen in batches of 20 to 30, but still must spend about 15 minutes in one-on-one interviews.

And, of course, AFDC clients can't be mixed in with DALP, who are distinct from the non-PA food stamp recipients. Translated, that means those who receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the traditional welfare program, cannot be lumped with those who need the Disability Loan Program, a state initiative, or those who receive food stamps and nothing else. It is a different world than Mr. Piscitelli entered 28 years ago, when social workers handled all aspects of a client's case. Now income maintenance workers supervise benefits, while social workers handle family problems. A homeless client could have yet another worker.

"When I started, we made home visits, we did it all," Mr. Piscitelli said. "At some point, a decision was made to separate duties. zTC Now they're relooking at that. The pendulum swings."

Just seems to grow

But as trends in social work swing, the paperwork just seems to grow. In the storeroom at Westwood Center, Mr. Piscitelli has cataloged 160 forms for the various state and federal programs available. His staff needs handwritten charts just to track down the forms on the metal bookshelves.

Paradoxically, the more attention a worker pays to one client, the more frustrated another client may become as he or she waits. Clients at the Westwood office said they cannot fault the staff there for lack of professionalism or courtesy. But the delays are enough to drive one wild, they said.

"I knew that girl who got killed," Ms. Richardson said, gesturing with her chin toward a portrait that hangs over the reception desk. In 1991, worker Tanja Brown-O'Neal was stabbed to death by a client in another center. "It was awful, but it wasn't that surprising."

"They do act as if it were their bank account," said Glenda Walker, a 26-year-old hoping that her toddler will continue to nap as she waits for an interview.

But Ms. Richardson is sympathetic. "They have a really heavy workload," she said. "It's just the waiting that makes it frustrating."

In a tiny cubicle, Ms. Pope's soft voice sounded just faintly mechanical as she ran through the lengthy spiel she delivers almost hourly. No matter how familiar it may be to her, she said, the worker has to make sure the client understands everything.

Once she is finished, the client will be hers for only 30 days. The case then will be transferred to a worker who handles ongoing cases, as Ms. Pope continues to face the never-ending stream of people with new cases, or closed cases that must be reopened.

"A lot of times, I feel overwhelmed, it's a tremendous amount of work," said Ms. Pope, who has never stopped to count all the forms she fills out daily. "At the same time, I don't know any other way I could get all the information I have to get."

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