Originally created 06/19/97

Proposed panel would help welfare recipients



ATLANTA - Welfare recipients would have new advocates to help them get off the dole and into jobs if officials approve an independent oversight panel pitched to the state Department of Human Resources Board on Wednesday.

The panel also may help those who hand out cash assistance.

Without help from a local independent welfare panel, welfare caseworkers can't anticipate or sort out the unique needs of each welfare recipient, such as child care schedules or transportation needs, said Otis Johnson, a Savannah advocate for the poor.

The new Temporary Assistance to Needy Families welfare reform law demands more of recipients, such as working or volunteering, both of which raise logistical problems not encountered under the old cash-for-nothing system.

"If (welfare) devolution is to reach its maximum potential, the result will be a shift all the way to the local level," said Mr. Johnson, executive director of Chatham-Savannah Youth Futures Authority.

More than 300,000 Georgians, mostly women and children, receive welfare. It will cost taxpayers $518 million this year. TANF's new policies go into effect in July, even though the clock on the four-year lifetime benefits cap began ticking in January.

Mr. Johnson wants to implement statewide what he started last December in Savannah - a broad-based community panel that spots kinks in the new TANF rules and then figures out how they can be fixed.

For example, the local panel might intervene if there is a spate of job openings in one part of town that poor people across town without cars or a bus route cannot get to. The panel might go to local government officials and suggest adding a bus route.

The Savannah panel includes different members of the community, including former welfare recipients, welfare workers and the Chamber of Commerce president.

State welfare director Mike Thurmond recommended Mr. Johnson's idea to the board.

Mr. Thurmond, director of DHR's Division of Family and Children Services, said state officials can't make such a change on their own.

"It's one thing to say, `We don't have it.' It's another to go to the transit authority and say, `How about it."'

The board voted unanimously to develop a preliminary proposal for statewide oversight committees.

Joiner voiced concern that the panel might add another layer of bureaucracy to TANF, which already requires monthly meetings with recipients as well as hearings if someone is going to be sanctioned for breaking a rule.

Johnson assured Joiner that the panel operates only as an information clearinghouse between DFACs, the board and DHR staff, not as another sounding board for angry recipients who have been sanctioned.

"This is not a hearing panel after all other avenues are exhausted. We are in the information collecting mode, not an arbitration mode," Johnson said.