NEWPORT, N.H. — When Dan Rapisura received welfare here this last winter, he dug graves in the frozen dirt at a local cemetery to pay off the $512 in benefits. He considered it a fair trade. This spring, he has two jobs and is back in school.
Welfare has always been a puritan affair in the hardscrabble factory towns and backwoods of New Hampshire. Long before Congress and others clamored for reform, this state gave few handouts. Single mothers, the elderly, and the disabled receive federal and state funds, but other than that, the poor turn to their own towns for welfare.
Under a little advertised, 300-year-old-law, each of the state's 232 communities is required to "take care of its own." Cash is never given. Instead, local officials issue vouchers for a month's rent, or a week's worth of groceries, or an overdue heating bill.
But officials in Newport, a scrappy river town where 1 in 10 people lives below the federal poverty line, have latched on to another solution - they've contracted out their welfare program.
Last June, they laid off the welfare director, who earned $30,000 a year, and signed a $15,000 one-year contract with Community Alliance of Human Services, a nonprofit group already assisting the area's needy.
Newport is one of a small but growing number of communities across the country experimenting with contracting out welfare services as a way of cutting costs while still providing a range of services for the needy.
The Newport program, experts say is one way to provide one-stop shopping for welfare recipients by using community agencies for case management.
LaDonna Pavetti, a researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington, who is tracking welfare reform across the country, points to a successful child-welfare benefits program in Vermont and local economic initiatives under way in Kansas City. Wisconsin too is gearing up for complete privatization. It will also require repayment of benefits.
The Newport program, experts say, could be a model for other communities. Under this experiment, an applicant fills out only one set of papers at Alliance offices, rather than going from Town Hall to the various social-service agencies. When recipients are back on their feet, they must repay the town.
"It provides one-stop shopping for those who need help," says Dick Chevrefils, assistant commissioner of the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services, who recently reviewed the program. The program has worked so well that half a dozen other towns are considering the model.
"Privatization the way this town is doing it on a small scale in New Hampshire ... has more positives than negatives," Pavetti says. "It's much easier to get families the services they need."
Mr. Rapisura was laid off from his machine operator's job on Jan. 11. By mid-February, after fruitless job searches and being rejected at state aid offices, he and his wife were desperate.
The family of five couldn't go on living in their modest mobile home on unemployment benefits of $152 a week.
"The bills just kept on piling in - rent, electric, heat," he says. "I thought, maybe the town can do something."
Newport, like most towns, already severely limited benefits. Still, officials were pushing town manager Dan O'Neill to cut costs. Taxpayers did not have a lot to spare in this town of 6,100, where the main employer is the Sturm-Ruger gun factory, and the per capita income of $11,590 is well below the $16,000 state average.
"Why not privatize welfare?" Mr. O'Neill thought. But rather than choosing a profitmaking company, he turned to Community Alliance, which has a $9.5 million budget from government and private sources and provides day care, transportation, and other services for hundreds of people a day.
But there is another important ingredient for people like the Rapisuras. "They respect you as a person, they're obviously there to help you," he says of agency staff.
Regina DeBoer at Community Alliance helped Rapisura fill out an application. Meanwhile, Susan Rapisura and their children were shown how to use the agency's computerized database, which lists hundreds of services.
"We believe in restoring people's dignity," Ms. DeBoer says. 'Even if they don't qualify for welfare, we try to help them get what they need."
The family received a rent voucher and $112 to pay the heating bill. In exchange, they signed papers saying they would repay the money. Rapisura went to work for the town at $4.25 an hour. He finishes truck-driving school in July on a scholarship program.