Nov 9, 2006

Welfare waste

I doubt that many of us visit the welfare office very often. I ventured into one yesterday – not down on my luck, fortunately, but on a different waste of time. I told myself I’d learn something, and I did.

First, why did I go? I am applying to be a volunteer tutor at a residential facility for girls whose families can’t care for them, nor can they fit into the foster care system. It’s imperative to protect the girls, and volunteers have to jump through several hoops, one of which is a background check of some kind. This is done at the Family Independence Agency, which in Michigan means “We’ll give you some money, but get off your butt and get a job because it’s not going to come forever.” Sounds lean – or mean – doesn’t it?

First thing you see is security guards. It will become obvious as I tell the story why someone might flip out and get violent. The guard behind the desk directed me to the same “Reception” line as everyone else stood in. Darn, I thought there'd be someone who could do it right away because it was so simple. Luckily, there were only about six people ahead of me. As I waited, I observed.

To my left was a human inventory holding area – about 60 chairs, arranged in rows, with about 20 people occupying them. Occasionally, one of them would approach the desk to ask why the wait was so long. Between the clients and the workers there were about three people behind the desk who were supposed to deal with the flow, and they looked harried and sick of the whole thing.

Every few minutes, one of the people waiting would be called to the desk and some actually dispatched to see their social worker. Some of those waiting who pulled the andon cord, so to speak, succeeded in getting their social worker paged or e-mailed a second time and were put back into the process flow.

Among the staff, there was a lot of walking around, a lot of paging and e-mailing of social workers, a lot of interruption when the social worker responded, a lot of waiting and a lot of frustration.

A couple of stories:

A woman in line behind me needed to get something to her social worker that day or her utilities were going to be cut off. There was supposed to be a drop box she could put it in, but naturally she didn’t trust that process and wanted to put the envelope in the social worker’s hand. I would too. But an unnecessary wait if the system worked. We all looked around, and eventually saw that there was a table with slot in it with a dingy label saying “drop box,” but there was no assurance that it was the right drop box or that anyone even emptied it on a regular basis.

When I got to the counter, the clerk was immediately interrupted by a message from a social worker, so she called the person who'd been waiting to the counter while I was shunted aside. This was a man in a wheelchair, apparently partially paralyzed, accompanied by a companion who had some sort of helper role. The clerk told him that the social worker said he didn’t have an appointment, and that message seemed to mean that the man had waited for nothing and would have to come back. He held out a blank benefit application and tried to say that he just needed help filling it out.

The clerk admonished him for signing in on the appointment sheet. How would you know? I wouldn’t. She asked, couldn’t the other guy help him? The man said he couldn’t. Then she said he’d have to wait while she found someone to help with the application. How many unnecessary obstacles can you count for both the clerk and the applicant?

Back to me. I produced the form, which the volunteer liaison told me I could just have them sign upon seeing my driver’s license. Of course, that turned out not to be true. I needed to show my social security card. She repeatedly asked if I had it, or had something else with my social security number on it. All I could do was repeatedly say with a helpless note in my voice that I didn’t, and I hadn’t been told to bring it. (And most of us have heard that we shouldn’t take anything with the number on it with us if we want to avoid identity theft, but I didn’t want to say that. I didn’t want to make her mad; she was the only person who could help me avoid another wait.)

She was clearly frustrated and said she had told the school before that people needed both forms of identification. She thrust a piece of paper toward me that had a few lines of text, one of them covered with magic marker, and wrote at the top in big capital letters, “ALOUD 1 WEEK,” with a phone number at the bottom and the name of the school. Apparently I was expected to take that back to the school so they’d stop making the mistake. How did it become my problem? Whatever. She grumbled and decided to accept my form anyway. Oh, I could come back and get it Monday. Maybe that’s what “ALOUD 1 WEEK” meant.

My empathy for all the people in this situation was growing. It was frustrating, to the point of anger, and humiliating for the people who needed help. There are a lot of people getting laid off here in Michigan, and more people like this man in the wheelchair who shouldn’t be subjected to these obstacles and long waits. I'm sure there were a couple of malingerers or cheats among them, but that's beside the point.

And, it's taxpayer money being wasted. Someone probably thought that laying off some FIA workers would be a good way to save money. Thus, inadequate resources to keep up with the process flow.

What percentage of people would at this point, leave the office and never come back, and never even tell the school why they dropped out?

I still needed to get three references. And, since I needed a TB test, the liaison had taken me to the clinic after I met with her (good) to get part one of the test, and I needed to go back to have the test read.

More potential drop-outs from the volunteer recruiting process.

I decided to calmly keep on, and besides, I was getting interested in all the ways these processes could be improved – not that anyone was likely to care.

Tune in early next week for the rest of the story, after I visit the FIA again.

Oh yes, it does say on the very wordy "How to complete the Volunteer Application" to take your social security card when you "drop off" the form at the FIA. The reason for the check is to ensure "that there are no pending or substantiated child abuse charges against you." I agree that protecting the girls is paramount. But why not add the instructions to the badly Xeroxed page that the FIA form appears on?

It's a lesson in going to the gemba. You can't really understand the process until you've walked it.


Lisa said...

Thank you so much for taking an interest in becoming a volunteer tutor at a residential facility for young women...

I grew up in foster care back in the 80's, when most older foster youth often wound up in group homes due to lack of foster homes for older children.

Now, I advocate for people in and from foster care.

1.) Here's a link to my web site:

2.) Here's a link to my blog:

I'm a member of Foster Care Alumni of America, and we are currently establishing a pilot chapter in Michigan. (I live in Ohio, but have some Michigan contacts for you).

I think you personally would be a wonderful member of Foster Care Alumni of America. I liked the way you saw the welfare office with fresh eyes, and the empathy that you demonstrated in your descriptions of what people were experiencing therein...

You could be an "ally" of FCAA, which means someone who shares our mission, in terms of connecting foster youth/alumni with one another and resources, and also using the collective experience of people in and from foster care to transform policies and procedures.

(Kind of like the somewhat dehumanizing procedures that you observed in the welfare office -- you can see how disheartening and even dehumanizing these can be to people in challenging situations).

If you are interested, please visit:

Either way, both my blog and web site above have links to email me, and please feel free to do so anytime!


Unknown said...

Thank you for your comments, Lisa. Lean is all about taking bad systems that beat good people and improving them. Maybe someday FIA will get the message. (Offline I sent Lisa information about the school and its alumni activities.)

Anonymous said...

I found your page searching "welfare waste". I am liberty oriented and am of the mind that government programs just don't work as well as the free market. Pretty much for all the reasons in your story. Inefficiency, waste, lack of empathy, lack of incentives, and the list could go on.

I told a socialist friend of mine that when someone at our church got down on their luck, we would all pitch in and help out. That blew his mind of course. He thinks Uncle Sam can solve all problems.

I think your heart is in the right place, and just wanted to say thanks for writing this.

Anonymous said...
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