Million-Hour Madness

Religious charities discover state welfare reform savings are based in part on their backs

Suzii Paynter and her small band of intrepid, faith-based foot soldiers recently found themselves trouping down to the basement of Christian Life Commission in Austin for an unusual experiment of sorts.

Most of her crew were longtime retirees who had helped the needy and helped the state in the past. They were First Baptist "regulars" who volunteered their time at the downtown homeless shelter. Paynter, public policy director of the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, had several co-workers along.

They were committed to providing more assistance in what has been touted as a major overhaul of the welfare system in Texas.

Activist Celia Hagert says the system shouldn't begin 
until the computer program is sound.
John Anderson
Activist Celia Hagert says the system shouldn't begin until the computer program is sound.

State government, in a plan stretching back nearly ten years, had pledged to revamp an unwieldy bureaucracy to streamline the eligibility process for services and benefits to disadvantaged Texans. Agency functions would be consolidated, archaic computer systems would be upgraded, and key work would be outsourced to private contractors.

The predicted results are touted as nothing short of spectacular. Texas would save nearly $400 million in costs over the first five years, much of that coming from staff reductions in government jobs. And there are supposed to be tremendous gains in efficiency.

But as Paynter and leaders of other faith-based organizations would eventually discover, a primary component of this grand plan is to save money by using their volunteer services.

Then they found out just how much of the load they were projected to shoulder to make this new system as success: one million volunteer hours of work every year, much of it in tedious chores like entering data into state computers.

"We were a significant part of the plan, yet no one had held a forum or sent out a letter or recruited a round table or asked for an advisory committee," says Paynter. "There had been no outreach about this plan whatsoever to say we were written into this role, and certainly no money for it."

So they trekked down to the basement to try to test the plan.

A decade ago, George W. Bush made welfare reform part of his campaign for Texas governor. Few argued with the call for change.

The system had remained largely the same since it was first designed in the 1960s. Needy residents still have to run a gauntlet of government screening before being qualified to receive assistance.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission says a low-income working couple, with two children and an elderly parent, would have to fill out four separate applications at different state offices to try to receive aid. They would need to try to qualify at these various offices for children's health insurance, food subsidies, Medicare and community care assistance.

Many of the poor don't have access to cars, leaving them trying to use bus routes to get to various government offices involved in the eligibility process. Once there, they often face waits and are usually interviewed in person by caseworkers who fill out the lengthy applications and verify their claims.

The poor would often be sent back for more documentation -- social security cards, paycheck stubs, birth certificates and other records required to process their forms.

The state's solution to the problems was a plan to merge call centers and privatize key functions. Applicants could make one phone call to a call center, where a well-scripted employee of a private company would determine just what services the applicant was entitled to receive. No waiting in line, no filling out forms, no being told to go and get more documents and come back.

The plan required a new software system that would integrate the forms for all the major public benefits programs to provide "one-stop shopping" for applicants.

And, in no surprise to anyone who has followed Bush's "compassionate conservatism" doctrine, this new integrated eligibility model would rely heavily on religious-based and community-based groups.

State Representative Elliott Naishtat, an Austin Democrat, served on the bipartisan panel appointed by Bush in 1996 to study welfare reform. He says the committee supported a broad look into privatization in the welfare area, but it was considered only a study.

He says he was surprised to hear next that a state request for proposals had suddenly been issued to privatize the system -- a $2 billion project, with major corporations lining up for the action. "All of a sudden, we had EDS and IBM and Lockheed Martin, all wanting to be a part of this process," Naishtat says.

At the time, the Clinton administration put the kibosh on the plan, saying that the management of these programs could not be privatized.

The state Health and Human Services Commission regrouped and decided that it could at least overhaul the antiquated computer software system. It had been cobbled together over the years to serve 50 Department of Human Services programs across 20 agencies. The state legislature put $55 million into the program created in 1999, then another $137 million in 2001.

When legislators raised privatization ideas again, a far friendlier face was in the White House, and Bush disciple Rick Perry was in the governor's office. To qualify the program, Texas lawmakers called for a small corps of remaining agency caseworkers to do the eligibility determination.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Houston Concert Tickets