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FINISHING THE JOB

Though declining welfare caseloads in Erie County, as elsewhere, are one indicator of reform efforts heading in the right direction, making sure new workers get all of the help they're entitled to is equally important.

The latest welfare-reform analysis -- from the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities -- raises the same red flags as earlier studies in the wake of the 1996 reform law. The latest analysis found people moving from welfare to work and losing food stamps and Medicaid even though they were still eligible. The problem is that no one told them.

The CBPP study isn't broken down by state, and Albany doesn't have figures on the number of New Yorkers in that predicament. That lack of data is one problem. It's the kind of information the state should have if it's going to accurately assess its welfare-to-work effort.

In Erie County, officials anticipated the problem and already have three special "transition" teams helping former recipients who work. The county automatically continues food stamps through the end of the person's current certification period before reassessing his or her eligibility and also extends Medicaid for up to a year.

"We think people are getting more food stamps and Medicaid than before the reform," says county Social Services Commissioner Deborah Merrifield, estimating that about 80 percent of transition workers now are getting all of the extra help they're entitled to. The figure should climb next year when two more transition teams are added.

Yet despite such efforts, some of the problems uncovered in the national studies occur here, too. Assistance agencies see new workers who have no idea they're still eligible for some types of help, even though county employees are supposed to inform them during exit interviews.

"Many, many times people don't know they're eligible for food stamps, or they're threatened by the application process, or they don't know they're eligible for (heating aid)," says Sister Mary Anne Weldon, who directs parish-based social services for Catholic Charities. "One of the things we train people to do is to ask the right questions."

When they do uncover an eligible worker, she says there's no problem getting the county to act. But what about those who don't end up at an agency that advocates for them?

Local governments should want to enroll as many of them as possible, particularly in the food-stamp program, says Wendell Primus, lead author of the CBPP study. That's because the federal government pays the benefits. That creates more spending power that sustains jobs and ripples through the local economy.

That plus the incentive to keep former recipients from returning to the rolls -- not to mention the moral imperative -- makes efforts like Erie County's not just compassionate, but smart. Yet if Erie -- and counties like it -- really want to call welfare reform a success, they have to find a way to reach that other 20 percent, and then help all new workers climb not just out of welfare, but out of poverty.

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