The best efforts to improve welfare in this country over the past 10 years aimed to spark the human spirit. The perception of the original Depression-era welfare program became that it rewarded laziness and put otherwise healthy, contributing Americans on a path of dependence that lasted generations.
But a recent study by Mathematica Policy Research of a brief Ramsey County program sharpens the focus on people who linger on public assistance.
"They have an IQ below 80, they have a serious mental illness," according to Mary Hanley, a Ramsey County social worker.
By the time someone in the state's welfare system, Minnesota Family Investment Program -- MFIP --is on Hanley's radar screen they've reached a troubling precipice. Hanley's job is to work with those who are within six months of reaching their five-year lifetime welfare limit.
Many of these clients are unable to read or write, they have mental illnesses or chronic physical problems that have gone untreated because of misplaced distrust of doctors or delusional episodes.
"Some of them, because of stigma about mental illness and low cognitive functioning, don't want to self-identify," Hanley said. "They fear their children will be taken away. Sometimes a lot of fears are false notions about what might happen in the system."
Hanley met Deadra Duncan almost four years ago. At the time, Duncan, a mother of two, had held dozens of low-paying jobs from custodial work to telemarketing. She was within weeks of her welfare cutoff.
"I was just thinking about me," Duncan said. "(I was) not wanting to deal with my children, giving them to a family member because I just knew I couldn't make it."
Duncan gets confused easily. Written words don't register and numbers throw her off.
"I usually lose focus," she said when talking about jobs. "I usually don't stay there more than two months. I just don't do good. I either get fired or fire myself."
In the five years she skidded through the MFIP system, no one recognized that she had cognitive delays and significant learning disorders. Hanley, a psychologist, steered Duncan toward the help she needed.
Duncan is now collecting Supplemental Security Income and talks of going back to school. Medication and counseling have helped her keep a part time job for almost a year.
Duncan's is a success story stemming from an intensive Ramsey County program that zeroed in on people nearing the end of their welfare benefits. The program recognized the vast majority those who enter the Minnesota welfare-to-work program -- two-thirds to three-quarters -- move off it within two years.
We don't really know what happens to them because once they leave the county we have no way of tracking them.Ramsey County Community Human Services Director Monty Martin
Deborah Schlick was a Ramsey County planner who spearheaded the effort. The program used one-time federal grants to hire staff with the right skills to go to people's homes, rather than talking over the phone or sending written notices.
"We knew we had a significant number of recipients heading toward the time limits," Schlick said. "We had to get intensive services and understand who was going to get to work and who was not."
During the time of the program, Ramsey County's number of MFIP clients who received extensions because of mental health reasons skyrocketed -- nearly double the number in neighboring Hennepin County. The increase wasn't because there were more mental health cases, but because staff were effective in locating them.
It was validation of what many working with the population already suspected -- that people with mental illness or cognitive problems fail to find their own paths to long-term assistance.
"You don't solve those problems in a year, and you don't solve most of them in three years," Schlick said. "But it looked like we were on the road to making a difference for some of those families."
During the program, Ramsey County staff had fewer than 30 welfare cases each. It allowed them time to make the repeated in-person visits necessary for some clients just to make contact. But when the grant dried up, the program ended. No state or federal funding has filled the void.
County Community Human Services Director Monty Martin says the staff have gone back to caseloads of 100 families or more each. He said his department still tries to keep track of the most difficult cases, but he doesn't have the resources to catch every one.
"Others simply go out and try to survive on their own," Martin said. "We don't really know what happens to them, because once they leave the county we have no way of tracking them."
While the Mathematica study praises the effectiveness of the Ramsey County program, it also concludes that it is very costly.
Dave Hage is an editorial writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and author of the 2004 book, "Reforming Welfare by Rewarding Work," which tracks welfare changes in Minnesota over the past decade. He says creating accountability in welfare has more to do with philosophy than with money.
"Welfare doesn't cost the government a lot in the first place," Hage said. "It's 1 percent of the federal government, it's 1 percent of the state budget. So you're not going to save a lot of money even if you make radical changes in the system. In the second place, it turns out that successfully and effectively moving people from public assistance into durable jobs is expensive."
Instead of boosting aid to the hard-to-reach families threatened with losing assistance, the state in the past year and a half chose to beef up job-finding efforts in the beginning of the welfare process. The Diversionary Work Program requires anyone looking to join MFIP to first undergo a four-month intensive job skills program.
State Department of Human Services Assistant Commissioner Chuck Johnson said while 60 percent of people on the work program don't immediately go on MFIP, he conceded the state has little information about whether they stay off.
"It seems like the Diversionary Work Program is helping some families get off and stay off of assistance. But in some cases it's more of a temporary situation, where they're not stable enough where they can stay off of assistance and come back somewhere between the fifth and 12th month," Johnson said.
Deborah Schlick left Ramsey County after the intensive program ended. She's now head of Affirmative Options Coalition, a collection of organizations that help low-income people. She acknowledged Ramsey's three-year program was expensive. But, she said, so is not doing it.
"You could stand at another vantage point and decide that maintaining a certain level of services is less expensive than children showing up at school with that sort of chaos of poverty -- unable to learn, later ending up in prison, their parents continuing to struggle from one piece of inadequate housing to another," Schlick said. "So the cost of not serving these families is also extremely expensive."
Schlick said at the same time that counties are prevented from devoting adequate resources to finding and evaluating people whose time on MFIP is running out, the state has not restored many of the cuts that happened during the budget deficit three years ago.
As a result, the people who have few choices to begin with have even less hope of finding the foothold they need to climb toward a better life.