Who'll be left there to help?

The Baltimore Sun

For a massive infusion of government aid to the needy to stimulate the economy, it is necessary for such aid to actually be delivered. Unfortunately, in Maryland, this is not a given.

After the stimulus is approved, federal government transfers such as food stamps, unemployment insurance and health care likely will increase. But it takes state employees to process and deliver that aid. And in this state, recent history shows that human services personnel are expendable.

Gov. Martin O'Malley's fiscal 2010 budget pares 1,875 state jobs with a broad sweep that includes all agencies, but the state departments of Human Resources and Health and Mental Hygiene will suffer more than the others. That's because of a seven-year hiring freeze that has hit human services agencies disproportionately hard.

The Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute examined the change in full-time state positions from the start of the freeze in 2001 until 2008 and found that those two departments lost 1,333 and 1,042 full-time positions respectively - more than twice as many as any other agency. (During the same period, higher education added 2,857 positions.)

The institute also reported that 80 percent of the Department of Human Resources vacancies occurred in jobs where state personnel determined eligibility for governmental transfer programs such as food stamps.

This is no surprise to us at Maryland Legal Aid. As we represent the unemployed and the working poor during this recession, we've seen the effects of a skeletal state infrastructure. Eligibility documents are lost by local Department of Social Service workers; phone calls are not returned; waiting rooms are crowded; supervisors and managers are unavailable; and mistakes are increasing.

Because of untimely retirements and resignations, the Baltimore County DSS has been hit particularly hard. A mother of three who has been regularly receiving food stamps failed to receive her eligibility recertification letter, and her benefits were terminated Dec. 31. Numerous trips to the county's Towson office failed to resolve the problem, and Legal Aid will now bring her matter to an administrative hearing. In the meantime, the family frequents food pantries.

At the county's Reisterstown office, another mother with similar difficulties - made worse by a lapse in child support payments - has visited the office four times and has been told that her paperwork is in order, but the office simply doesn't have the staff to process the assistance.

Another Legal Aid client, this one with a high-risk pregnancy, visited the Towson office in October 2008 to apply for food stamps and Medicaid. Despite a requirement to act on such applications within 30 days, the county allowed months to pass without any eligibility determination, and acted only when Legal Aid intervened.

Missing eligibility deadlines has become so commonplace statewide in Medicaid for the disabled that the state recently proposed emergency rules to extend the application processing deadline from 60 days to 90.

Can food stamps put purchasing power into the hands of the working poor if there are no state hands to administer the program? Will expanded health insurance stem the cost-shifting of uncompensated care to the insured if eligibility decisions are delayed or in error? Can government transfer payments stimulate demand if government is in disarray?

Just as eyebrows were raised when local governments declared hundreds of public works projects to be "shovel ready" but for federal money, we must also look critically at state governments' ability to deliver federal cash and in-kind assistance. In Maryland, that capacity has been hindered by the false belief that state eligibility workers can always do more with less.

J. Peter Sabonis is acting chief counsel of Maryland Legal Aid. His e-mail is psabonis@mdlab.org.

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