Welfare: Easing the Blow? New 'Fairness Council' Is Not Enough, Some Say

Article excerpt

ATLANTA -- Buffeted by complaints from advocates for the poor, a

state board yesterday agreed to consider softening the blow of

new get-tough welfare rules by setting up a "fairness council"

to review problem cases.

The Department of Human Resources board yesterday approved

rules to determine how newly enacted state laws limiting welfare

benefits will be enforced.

The rules will dictate, for instance, what types of behavior --

such as refusing a job offer or letting a child drop out of

school -- constitute violations that can lead to suspended or

revoked aid.

Lobbyists for welfare recipients, however, say the regulations

are vague and leave too much room for punitive interpretations.

Board members agreed to consider a "fairness council," similar

to one operating in Savannah, that would oversee the new welfare

law, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and suggest changes

to the rules when necessary.

"No one expects these [rules] to be carved in stone," said

board Chairwoman Lasa Joiner.

The proposed council, first suggested by Savannah child

advocate Otis Johnson, "makes it a little more accountable,

since most of the details will be in policy, not the rules,"

Joiner said.

The council will help the board and caseworkers sidestep

ambiguities that might lead to unnecessary punishment of welfare

mothers and children, said Johnson, executive director of the

Chatham-Savannah Youth Futures Authority.

"We see it as a two-edged sword. The vagueness gives the

flexibility that's needed to have a humane handling, but at the

same time it leaves the interpretation to people who may not be

customer-friendly," he said. "These are things we need to watch

and monitor from an independent base.

"If you care about these children, you want the rules and

regulations to help them, not hurt them."

The welfare reform law was passed by the General Assembly this

year and affects more than 300,000 people. It will cost the

state $518 million and includes funding for job training and

child care.

Welfare recipients have a lifetime limit of four years on

welfare, unless they receive department approval for hardship

cases such as medical disability or domestic abuse.

While the clock started ticking on Georgia's four-year deadline

in January, the policy manual for caseworkers won't be completed

until July 1. There will be no period for the public to comment

on the manual. …