Staffing cuts paralyze welfare offices

October 17, 2011

This op-ed by Michael Froehlich and Julie Zaebst was originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on October 3, 2011.

Last month, Hurricane Irene roared through Philadelphia, flooding basements and knocking out power to thousands of local residents. A week later, Tropical Storm Lee caused more damage. And last week, the aftermath of the storms brought attention to a different kind of disaster – a man-made one blowing out of Harrisburg.

Low-income Pennsylvania families are eligible for a small amount of food stamps (now called Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits) to replace food lost because of a storm. Families have a limited number of days to claim these food stamps. But when families applied for those benefits at local welfare offices, they faced chaos and waits of more than three hours. Worse, they were given little information on eligibility and requirements.

In a lengthening recession, the state Department of Public Welfare is being called on to provide critical basic services to more Pennsylvanians with less staff. Since 2002, the number of workers at the department has dropped by 13 percent. At the same time, caseloads have nearly doubled, with each worker now handling an average of 472 food stamp and Medicaid cases.

Hardworking county welfare staffs can’t keep up with the growing workload. This year’s state budget included another $56 million in cuts to welfare department operations and welfare-to-work services.

Meanwhile, waits of more than two or three hours have become common at welfare offices. Phone lines are jammed, and messages often go unreturned. Several years ago, the Philadelphia office set up a customer service center to handle inquiries from clients. Today, fewer than one in five calls to the center is picked up.

In addition, the welfare office now rejects more than a third of applications for food stamps. Nearly half of the rejections are because the welfare office believes an applicant has failed to provide documentation or make an appointment. In our experience assisting welfare recipients, however, these rejections can often be attributed to documents misplaced by overwhelmed skeleton crews or to ineffectual “phone tag” between officials and applicants with busy work, child-care, and school schedules.

The system is collapsing under the weight of an increasing workload, with fewer workers to handle it and a state government oblivious to the impact.

When low-income families must spend entire days at a welfare office waiting to see a caseworker or return several times to turn in the same piece of paper, it’s time they’re not spending at work, looking for work, going to school, or tending to their children.

Continuous cuts to the Department of Public Welfare have undone essential government functions. Welfare caseworkers are doing the best they can, but, as we saw last week, they are completely overwhelmed. The greatest consequences are to those who can least afford them.

Michael Froehlich is an attorney with Community Legal Services. Julie Zaebst is policy center manager at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.


CLS provides written testimony on proposed bills that affect immigrant clients

September 23, 2011

CLS attorneys recently submitted written testimony to the Pennsylvania House State Government Committee regarding a package of bills that would adversely affect many of our immigrant–and, in some cases, citizen–clients.

To read our testimony regarding bills that would affect public benefits and employment programs, click here.

To read our testimony regarding bills that prohibit agencies from offering translation or interpretation services, click here.

Congress has a role in preventing hunger

September 22, 2011

The following op-ed appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on September 21, 2011, by Kathy Fisher, Carey Morgan, and CLS Attorney Jonathan Stein

A recent report by the Food Research and Action Center found that more than one in five Pennsylvania families with children struggle to put food on the table. Members of Congress expressed shock and indignation at the findings. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.), who represents a district where nearly half the families are at risk of hunger, said the report shone a “glaring spotlight” on the hardship American children are experiencing.

As bleak as the figures were, though, the report shouldn’t have been news to anyone who’s picked up a newspaper since the start of the recession – let alone anyone representing Pennsylvania in Congress. The study merely confirmed what lawmakers should know full well: that tens of thousands of families in their districts can’t afford the food they need.

The real outrage here is that even though members of Congress pay lip service to protecting American children, they have been chipping away at the nutritional programs that keep millions of kids from going hungry every day.

The House recently voted to slash $127 billion from the nation’s most important antihunger program, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (formerly food stamps), which according to one study helps feed one in two Americans at some point during their childhood. The House also voted to slice $733 million from the Women, Infants, and Children program, which helps more than a quarter-million Pennsylvania mothers and children afford milk, cereal, and fresh produce. These cuts would come on top of another $1 trillion in discretionary spending cuts under the recent debt-ceiling deal, which will limit the reach of other nutritional programs well into the future.

What happens if Congress fails to protect SNAP, WIC, and other nutritional programs? All Americans, hungry or not, will pay the price in the years to come. Growing up without enough food can devastate children physically and psychologically. Hunger threatens their health and development and robs them of the ability to reach their full potential.

Over the next few months, partisan rhetoric will no doubt continue to consume Congress as an appointed “super-committee” devises a plan to further trim the budget deficit. As a member of the committee, Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) is in a unique position to represent all Pennsylvania families and confirm the nation’s long-term commitment to its children. As a businessman and strong supporter of economic growth, he must also understand that the country will not thrive if we don’t invest in our children. Cutting federal nutrition programs will make hunger and malnutrition more common and more deeply rooted in our communities, draining our economy, stunting child development, and increasing suffering.

No matter how divisive the debate becomes, we must hold our elected officials accountable for keeping the interests of our children at the center of their decisions. If we don’t, America will soon find that a generation of undernourished kids is struggling as adults.

Kathy Fisher is family and economic security associate for Public Citizens for Children and Youth. Carey Morgan is executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. Jonathan Stein is general counsel for Community Legal Services.

CLS Attorney Rasheedah Phillips testifies at City Council on how proposed zoning code would affect low-income child care providers

September 21, 2011

CLS Attorney Rasheedah Phillips’ testimony begins at 13:30 in above video.

On September 14, 2011, City Council had its second session of public hearings on the proposed new Zoning Code for Philadelphia, drafted by the Zoning Code Commission with considerable input from community stakeholders..  Rasheedah Phillips of Community Legal Services, along with other advocates from the child care community, testified in support of the new zoning Code, and discussed remaining concerns that the child care community has with the new Code.  The child care community, through the Child Care Law Project directed by Ms. Phillips, has submitted several recommendations to the ZCC that will make the Code more accessible to childcare providers, and many of those recommendations have made their way into the Code.

Ms. Phillips’ full testimony is available below. Read the rest of this entry »

Stop Foreclosures – Save HEMAP Rally and Lobby Day Harrisburg Tuesday, September 27

September 20, 2011

Stop Foreclosures-


Rally and Lobby Day


Tuesday, September 27

Rally 1 PM Capitol Rotunda

Free bus leaves Philadelphia at 8:30 AM from 16th and JFK. Please continue reading to see how you can make your reservations…. Read the rest of this entry »

CLS pushes for extension of SSI for asylees and refugees who are elderly or severely disabled

August 17, 2011

CLS has worked for years to ensure that asylees and refugees who are elderly or have  severe disabilities that prevent them from working qualify for SSI.  SSI, or Supplemental Security Income, provides subsistence benefits of $674/month.  But asylees and refugees who are unable to become U.S. citizens within a certain time period lose their SSI.

In 2008, CLS worked with nationwide allies to successfully lobby the U.S. Congress to pass an extension of time so that refugees and asylees could continue to receive SSI while they applied for naturalization.  Unfortunately, that legislation is set to sunset, or expire, on October 1, 2011.

Last week, however, Reps. Jim McDermott (D-WA) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) introduced a bill that would extend SSI for two more years for many asylees and refugees.  CLS continues to push Congress to remove the artificial time limit for asylees and refugees to receive SSI.  In the meantime, we are encouraged by this bill and are working hard to ensure that it is passed before thousands of asylees and refugees who are elderly or disabled lose their SSI at the end of September.

A press release issued by the National Immigration Law Center, a strong ally in these efforts, is below. Read the rest of this entry »

CLS advocates for fair Health Insurance Exchange

August 15, 2011

On August 11, CLS Staff Attorney Kristen Dama provided the following testimony at a forum convened by the Pennsylvania Insurance Department regarding how to best implement Health Insurance Exchanges in Pennsylvania.  

Community Legal Services (CLS) thanks Commissioner Michael F. Consedine and the Pennsylvania Insurance Department for hosting public forums to permit stakeholders to present ideas on the establishment of a Health Insurance Exchange in Pennsylvania.

For more than forty years, CLS has helped thousands of low-income Philadelphians with legal problems by providing them with advice and representation in non-criminal cases, advocating for their legal rights, and conducting community education to inform them about the laws that affect their lives.  CLS also engages in legislative and administrative advocacy on behalf of its clients.  CLS’s Public Benefits Unit works to ensure that low-income Philadelphians have access to public health insurance and other benefits.

In recent months, CLS has been happy to work with the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, a statewide coalition of organizations working to protect high quality health insurance coverage and to expand coverage to the uninsured, to develop a Joint Position Statement for Implementing a Health Insurance Exchange.  The Position Statement outlines recommendations for establishing a Pennsylvania-run Exchange that functions as a marketplace for affordable, accessible coverage for individuals and families.  Rather than reiterate the principles contained therein, we simply note our endorsement of the Position Statement and urge Pennsylvania to incorporate its principles if and when it establishes a state-run Exchange.

CLS believes that implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) creates an unprecedented opportunity to provide comprehensive health insurance coverage to low-income Pennsylvanians while, at the same time, addressing historical, systemic barriers to public health insurance access.  To that end, we focus our comments on how a Pennsylvaniarun-Exchange would be able to function best in concert with Medicaid and other public health insurance programs.[i]

Read the rest of this entry »