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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

“Shutting It Down Is Shutting Us Out!”

The demonstration staged in front of the Department of Transitional Assistance’s Roslindale office by welfare, labor, and human services activists Thursday, September 19, was the last, organizers say with conviction.

No, the coalition, which includes the low-income women’s advocacy nonprofit Survivors, Inc., the organized labor/welfare rights alliance Working Massachusetts, and DTA social workers’ union SEIU Local 509, has no illusions of overcoming once and for all what it sees as the injustices of the system – the endless paperwork, the computer errors, the lack of access to education and training, the barriers to immigrants, the disrespect. Rather, it is acknowledging that despite its efforts, the site will be closing as of September 27. How the services and jobs it formerly provided will be replaced is the question that prompted the upcoming protest, although organizers are quick to point out that the shuttering of welfare offices is only one thread in a web of recent budget cuts affecting social services – including elimination of benefits for immigrants, and reductions in the state Medicaid program – that they see as ensnaring low-income Massachusetts residents in conditions of desperate need.

If DTA commissioner John Wagner gets his way, the approximately 4,500 cash assistance and food stamp recipients currently served in Roslindale will be re-routed to the two remaining Boston offices (outposts in Roxbury Crossing and Dorchester were shut down in the 1990’s), as will most staff. Some recipients will be steered to the Grove Hall branch 3.2 miles away in Dorchester, while most will be directed to 1010 Mass. Ave., also in Dorchester, but over five miles away. Many workers and managers will be able to choose where they wish to be transferred, but others are not so lucky -174 will be laid off.

Activists involved in the September 19 event are sharply critical of this approach, saying that to shift the onus of compensating for state budget cuts onto the overburdened shoulders of those receiving public benefits is grossly unfair, as well as unreasonable. Noting that there are no plans to expand the remaining Dorchester facilities, they wonder where all the new workers and clients will park, not to mention sit. But most critically, there is concern that some people eligible for benefits may not even be able to get to their new offices reliably.

Diane Dujon, a former welfare mother who is currently a professor at UMass-Boston and a board member of Survivors, Inc., is outraged that recipients are being asked to drain their limited time and monetary resources on traveling far outside their communities to obtain the services their families need. By definition, she argues, families on welfare have young children or disabled members, and forcing them to make even longer trips, with extra buses and trains, will make benefits they are eligible for in effect unobtainable. Speaking at the rally, Dujon recalled, “I had to walk all over town when I didn’t have money for the bus. And then they would send me back because they wanted another copy of my birth certificate – I told them, ‘It hasn’t changed since the last time you saw it!'” Echoing another point brought up by a speaker, she added that the working poor who cycle on and off food stamps will also be hard-hit, because the longer and more expensive trip to the DTA office is compounded by the fact that the hard-won program of expanded hours for processing food stamp applications was axed in an earlier round of budget cuts – possibly forcing workers to choose between keeping their jobs and having enough money for food.

Another concern of protesters was that the level of service, already considered poor by many recipients and advocates, might fall even further. Elizabeth Toulan of Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) pointed out that after years of declining rolls, the DTA began seeing a rise in its caseload last fall, which has continued steadily throughout the past year – a period that coincides with the current recession.

Is the combination of a bad economy, a rising caseload, a shrinking budget, and further layoffs a recipe for disaster? Marita, who has a case open though the Roslindale office and did not want her real name used, has reason to believe so. The mother of a toddler, she works part-time and is also taking classes. Her husband is in the process of applying for residency, but until he gets his green card, it will be hard to find stable employment. This past spring, she was receiving food stamps for herself and her child when, in the first of many attempts to trim the budget, early retirement was offered to senior staff. Marita’s social worker was among those who took it, and when her case came up for re-certification, she was transferred to a younger worker, who she claims was so overwhelmed that she changed her voicemail message to say, “I am aware of the many clients trying to get in touch with me. All I ask for is your patience.” And so the wait began. For weeks, Marita frequented food pantries, left messages for her worker, and tried to guess what verifications might be necessary to get her food stamps re-authorized. According to her, over a month had gone by when, because her husband was laid off, she became eligible to apply for TAFDC, since unemployment benefits do not cover the undocumented. Her case was then transferred to a new worker who was able to re-open her food stamp account immediately. Marita’s experience left her very skeptical of the DTA’s plans for consolidation: “If my husband hadn’t had the bad luck to lose his job, who knows when I ever would have gotten my food stamps – and I was already in the program! I know there will be problems when they transfer the office – people are going to get lost in the shuffle. And there are lots of families worse off than I am – homeless, or single mothers.”

Marita was not the only worried DTA client in attendance. Terry Hinton, an activist and outreach worker with Survivors, Inc. receives services through the DTA’s homeless unit in the Grove Hall office. Between her own case and her job, Hinton spends a considerable part of the week in the two offices targeted to absorb Roslindale’s cases. “You know the waiting times are going to get even longer,” she remarked, “and sometimes they have people waiting on that bench for hours.”

Betty Reid Mandell, a retired social worker and professor who volunteers with Survivors, Inc., spoke at the demonstration about the changing times and the need for alliances to ward off the divide-and-conquer tactics that result in losses for both unionized workers and welfare recipients. Later, citing recent research by UMass-Boston economists showing that lower-income Massachusetts residents, especially minorities, lost ground economically during the boom of the 90’s while top earners made fantastic gains, she commented that aside from the practical problems of re-routing recipients, it is “a grave injustice to make our most vulnerable citizens – those who gained least in the good times – be the first to pay in lost services when the bad times come.” If any changes are made, she insists, outreach and accessibility of DTA offices should be expanded to cope with the growing numbers for whom the faltering economy isn’t providing. Pointing to another UMass-Boston study released this month that condemns Massachusetts as second worst in the nation in rates of getting those eligible on food stamps, she called the office closing “wrongheaded and shortsighted”.

For DTA spokesperson Dick Powers, the decision is about simple math: the state legislature slashed the Department’s budget to $121 million – a 12% reduction from last year’s $137 million. Characterizing the cut as “extremely painful,” Powers pointed out that other Transitional Assistance Offices have been shut down – including one in Northampton which had clients “30, 40 miles away”. Asked if he blamed the legislature for the problems prompting last Thursday’s protest, Powers said yes, but qualified that “they were only reacting to the souring economy.”

A social worker who wished to remain anonymous felt that a more proactive stance should have been taken. According to her, Roslindale workers have been aware of the impending cost-cutting measures since last fall, and their suggestions – such as replacing the large American Legion Highway site with smaller, “satellite” offices – were rebuffed in favor of a wait-and-see attitude, and, ultimately, a more draconian solution. The longtime employee, who is bilingual, expressed bitterness that “people who’ve been here 10 or 15 years are being laid off,” while pleas for help seem to fall on deaf ears. Workers have been calling their representatives, their union, even Mayor Menino to no avail. Apparently the poor and those who work with them are an easy sacrifice in hard times, she feels.

In his impassioned speech at the rally, Ken Ramsay, president the DTA social workers’ chapter of of SEIU Local 509, all but admitted to his organization’s mistake in reacting to the FY 2003 budget with complacency. “They [DTA management] told us that if they closed this office, there would be enough money to keep our jobs. Well, guess what – we lost the office and our jobs!” Ramsay went on to decry the human services funding cuts and pledged to work with recipients and advocates to fight “money going to corporate greed instead of those in need.”

An exception to the silence from elected officials that both workers and activists complained of was the appearance of a representative of City Councilor Chuck Turner’s office. The message Angela Yarde relayed, “We support you in this fight,” was received with loud applause.

So what is the answer to the questions raised at the demonstration about access to benefits and keeping good jobs in the community? Powers, of the DTA, called satellite offices “a laudable proposal,” but continued, “however, there’s no money to do it.” Ramsay, speaking for the union, urged those gathered to join in political action, taking protests to the State House. Jason Pramas of Working Massachusetts had a broader goal in mind. Criticizing the separate programs that comprise the social safety net – TAFDC, unemployment compensation, Social Security – as inadequate and forcing various sectors of society to “fight over crumbs,” he challenged the labor movement to fight for a government-funded “cradle-to-grave living wage.” Representatives of Survivors, Inc. focused on finding a practical, realistic alternative to the DTA’s current policy of office closings and layoffs of frontline workers. They called for a clear process to be established and publicized for accommodating those for whom traveling to Dorchester is too much of a hardship – perhaps a waiver form that would allow cases to be processed by mail. And a demand was made that the Department look further into the concept of satellite offices, or what Toulan of GBLS termed “outstationing.”

This would entail sending workers to other sites rented by the Commonwealth such as Department of Public Health or Department of Motor Vehicles offices, or even to community organizations like ABCD, or, following the example of the WIC program, health centers. The message organizers hoped attendees would walk away with was: Those in need of public assistance shouldn’t have to jump through endless hoops, and those working for the DTA provide needed services. In the words of one speaker, “Things are being shaken up. We can take this opportunity to make DTA work for us.”

María Christina Blanco is an outreach worker for Survivors, Inc. Survivors, Inc. has a student chapter on the UMass-Boston campus in the ARMS Center.