The Department of Social Services and groups that advocate for low-income individuals have once again, at least temporarily, abandoned their frequently adversarial roles and are working together to find solutions to some major problems in the area of human services delivery.
To understand the problems, imagine this:You're a divorced mother of three with limited education and very few skills. You're unemployed or employed in a minimum-wage job on which you're trying to pay the bills and feed and clothe the children. You have no savings, no liquid assetts, and no food in the house.
But you try to keep going, cutting back on the amount you eat, on the size of the portions you give the children, sometimes even on entire meals. You're now eating peanut butter sandwiches twice a day.
The little money you have, which might be used for clothing (Susan's shoes have holes in them and ought to be replaced) or food, must instead be used to pay rent and utility bills.
Finally, you swallow what's left of your dwindling pride and go to your nearest Office of Community Operations site to apply for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (welfare) and/or food stamps.
The place is packed. People are standing in a line leading up to a window. Others are scattered into chairs in the center of the room. You sign in and learn it will be at least an hour before someone can talk to you - and maybe quite a bit longer.
When you finally get in to see a case manager, you're told that it will be up to 30 days before you can get food stamps and 45 days before you receive a welfare grant.
You'll have to think of something else for a month, which is a long, long time when bills are worrying you and you're hungry.
Social Services and advocates aren't arguing about the problems that exist in the system right now: It is taking the full time allowed by federal regulation (and some advocates say occasionally longer) to get help. Eighteen months ago it took about two weeks.
Besides the delays, advocates have charged that there is an increase in the amount of lost paperwork (which causes further delays and frustration) and that some cases are being closed inappropriately, through staff errors.
PACMIS, the new Public Assistance Case Management Information System, is being blamed for some of the delays. The new computer system, which it is hoped will someday simplify the whole paperwork process, is not completely on-line yet.
And valuable staff time and energy has been expended with training on how to use the system. Right now, with conversion to PACMIS almost complete, OCO Director Tim Holm and Assistance Payments Administration Director Cindy Haag tell of other problems with the system.
Teams are working to improve the system's response time (waiting even 10-12 seconds for a screen to come up when you're processing paperwork can add up to a lot of wasted time). Other glitches, like computer downtime, have taken a toll.
But PACMIS, everyone agrees, cannot be blamed for everything. The bottom line, about which the groups have reached consensus, is very clear:
The number of cases that state Social Service staffers are processing has increased dramatically in the last few years. The number of staffers to deal with the greater work load has not increased.
And what was described by advocates and officials alike as a horrible, terrible situation cannot be resolved until workers receive some relief.
They are buried under a caseload that seems insurmountable and frustration, errors and even anger seem to be a natural result.
Instead of complaining about delays and ineptitude by state social service workers, do something constructive. Call lawmakers and tell them that the system is in danger of falling apart because existing staff cannot be expected to handle the amount that is beginning to bury them.
And the people they are trying desperately to serve cannot be expected to survive, unscathed, without the aid they are entitled to, by federal law, within a reasonable amount of time.
Even the advocates, the first to criticize when things are going wrong, sympathize with the workers. And they all agree that those workers are giving "at least 110 percent - if not more."
But to get ahead of the caseload, these people would probably have to give 200 percent or more. And it's inhuman to expect anyone to accomplish such a task.