Norman G. Angus is frequently invited to participate in "awareness" demonstrations as director of the Department of Human Services.
Almost annually, he spends a day in a wheelchair as part of barrier-awareness exercises. As he battles his way into buildings that don't have ramps, he is frustrated - temporarily. He knows he'll get out of the wheelchair at the end of the day.The middle class is like that, he said. They may dabble in the lives of people who are poor or disabled or mentally ill. But they don't really know what it's like to live those lives.
"We all go home in our nice cars to our nice houses at the end of the day. We can't relate to it, in the middle class."
His battle, when the legislative session begins, will be to try to convey the reality of the lives his department serves to the lawmakers who determine funding.
It always comes down to funding, he said. "This isn't a big year for us as far as legislation goes. But I have some concerns just in terms of maintaining existing services."
The governor's budget proposal contains increases for department programs, he said. "But moneywise, it's a lot of catch up, with burgeoning caseloads and federal mandates that we have to cover - and we should cover.
"I sound greedy. But I look at the one hand and see what the needs are and on the other hand what needs to be done to meet them. There are a lot of people in trouble."
Over the years, Angus said, he has tried with varying degrees of success to educate lawmakers about the lives of people in dire need.
"I'd like to have us middle-classers understand what it's really like to have a handicapped child and few or no services. Or to live in an apartment because you can only pay $150 a month. People live in places I wouldn't put my dog down in. We have the attitude: `So? They can take care of themselves.' Well, some of them can't.
"I think we've been very conservative. In comparisons with other states, we're pretty efficient. We show up favorably costwise, and we have nationally recognized programs. Our expenditures per resident are down near the bottom, but we're near the top in efficiency. If someone finds areas where we can be more efficient, I'll be the first to look at that."
A sampling of the funding problems he faces:
- Inflation continues to rise, while cost-of-living adjustments to recipients and providers have lagged. It would cost $3 million to provide a 4.5 percent increase.
- His department lacks money to provide services for people with handicaps, including mentally retarded youths who graduate from school and need supported workshops.
- Since 1982, eligibility staff has grown 15.6 percent, but the caseload is up 65 percent. Child-welfare cases have gone up 137 percent, but staff only 15 percent, including staff hired this summer with supplemental money.
- Millions of dollars are available from a federal jobs program, but it will take another $282,000 in state money to get it.
Angus described himself, only half in jest, as a well-dressed beggar during the Legislature.
"I don't know if we'll be able to maintain necessary services," Angus said. "And we have to compete with other important programs, like education, health and corrections. I'm just grateful we're not in a cutting mode."