Ronia Houston is a case manager for people receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the program most people think of as welfare.
Caseworkers make sure clients fill out the paperwork and follow the rules to get help with childcare, work training and other financial support they need to provide for themselves and their families.
In Illinois, there are 852 cases per every case worker. That’s nearly triple the number of cases in 2001.
Houston says one of her clients is always in crisis. They can’t cover heating bills or get kicked out of their home and need to find a shelter on short notice. Her clients need to find jobs in order to get assistance. But many have nowhere near the education to even apply for most jobs.
Houston says she doesn’t have the time or resources to give every client the attention they need.
That saddens her, since Houston herself grew up on welfare and remembers what it felt like to be treated as a number.
“I always tell my co-workers about being a child receiving public assistance and being in the public aid office for hours at a time. Telling my mom, when are we going to leave this place? When your parent has been degraded in that moment, you are aware of that as a child,” she said.
Everyday, she makes hard choices about where to spend her limited time. She watches her fellow employees do the same.
“If a worker has a caseload of 1,500, you are asking them to play Russian Roulette with someone’s life because they have to decide do I do food stamps first? Do I process Medical first?” Houston said.
Jennifer Wagner is the Associate Director for the Illinois Department of Human Services.
She says their local offices are overwhelmed by the demand. And that unfortunately, means some applicants just give up.
“People may have to apply more than once. They may have to submit paperwork more than once, in order to actually get on. And for some applicants that burden is just too great to bear,” Wagner said.
That’s especially true for programs like cash assistance, the program that provides welfare funds directly to families. Its clients have more requirements to reach and paperwork to fill out.
Liz Schott is a Senior Fellow at The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. She says Illinois is one of the weaker safety nets for poor children.
She points to the most recent numbers: For years 2010 and 2011, for every 100 poor families with poor children, 13 of them got cash assistance.
That’s half the national average.
That means in Illinois, if your family is amongst the very poor and without a job, you are less likely to receive welfare. There are lots of reasons our numbers may be low.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Illinois systematically moved people away from TANF. Caseworkers scheduled frequent, mandatory meetings that determined benefit eligibility. When people found it hard to keep those meetings, the number of cases fell significantly.
Schott says Illinois has made it easier for families in recent years. And we are now serving more poor families that we use too. But she says we still have a long ways to go.
For example, the maximum benefit for a family of three is $432 a month or $5,184 per year. That’s nowhere near enough to bring families above the poverty line.
Jennifer Wagner agrees that improvements can be made but says times are tight for local governments.
“There is a lot of recognition at the state level about how valuable this program is. It is part of the budget talks, regularly. That doesn’t mean there is always money for it,” she said.
That’s no comfort to Ronia Houston who struggles everyday to properly serve her clients. She wants to find ways to help people and says it’s difficult when caseworkers need the time and space to figure out each client’s individual needs.
“If you had more people working on cases, caseworkers wouldn’t be faced with the dilemma of ‘Do I give this person life with their medication, or do I feed this person,’” Houston said.
The original legislation for TANF was created during a period of economic boom, when more jobs were available. The program did receive some money as part of the economic stimulus bill but that program has ended, and that money is no longer available.
The bill that sets the federal guidelines for TANF is up for renewal. Advocates hope that a few details about the program, including funding, will be reviewed before then.