Wisconsin saves time, money with computerized welfare system

Welfare applicants often wait weeks before learning whether they are eligible for aid and how much they will get. And sometimes those in one county who need more government help will end up getting less than those in another county.

Wisconsin has quietly taken the lead nationally in the last six years in developing a streamlined computer welfare system that greatly reduces such delays and inconsistencies.

The state's Health and Social Welfare Service expects the system, which will become statewide with the addition of eight counties this fall, expects it to save Wisconsin taxpayers at least $21 million a year by eliminating payments to ineligible families and by reducing overpayments and unnecessary paper work.

Time of both administrators and clients is also saved. In Milwaukee County, where welfare recipients often had to spend much of the day in various waiting rooms just to hand in their applications and then make an appointment two or three weeks off to discuss their cases, applicants now often learn within hours -- sometimes minutes -- whether or not they are eligible and what their benefit level will be.

At the heart of the Wisconsin change is a single application form which serves for each of the state's three largest welfare programs -- Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), food stamps, and medicaid.

"The trick was to write it so as to get the information needed to determine eligibility [and benefit levels] by asking a logical series of specific questions that could be answered 'yes' or 'no,'" says Bernard Stumbras, administrator of Wisconsin's Division of Economic Assistance and a man who has worked on development of the project from the very beginning.

It was not an easy job.

"No one wanted to give us any money to do it, because everyone was convinced it couldn't be done," Mr. Stumbras recalls. "Until you really get immersed in this [the varying criteria and definitions of terms in different welfare programs], you can't believe how complicated it is. If we had fully realized it in advance, we probably never would have started it ourselves."

As it was, according to Stumbras, Wisconsin officials started in 1974 by trying to rethink and clarify those elements of the federal programs left open to state interpretation. "I'd say we probably changed 1,000 state policies probably five or six times over," he says.

More difficult, in his view, was trying to develop a system of uniform definitions and procedures which would hold for the various federal programs. Many, Stumbras says, have different time requirements for the start of aid and varying definitions of such terms as "household" and "earned income." He tells of seeing one computerized printout, for instance, at a Colorado meeting a few years ago which was 40 feet long and compared varying definitions of "earned income" as interpreted by 27 federal programs.

Indeed, says Stumbras, since the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the food stamp program, was the least willing (or able) to "bend" in its definitions, Wisconsin's single application form tilts toward the USDA variations.

The state began its move to the new system gradually, with only two counties at first.

Eventually the legislature rallied with dollar support, and the federal government helped with its normal 50 percent reimbursement of administrative costs. Stumbras estimates that the computerized operation cost some $3 million over the years to develop.

Wisconsin is by no means the only state with a computerized welfare system. But Stumbras, who serves as a member of the US Health and Human Services Department's advisory committee on welfare reform, says that such states as Louisiana, Michigan, and Georgia are patterning their information systems after the Wisconsin model.

But Stumbras cautions that, in his view, the hardware and software of the Wisconsin system, which uses IBM computers, is the least significant aspect of the reform achieved. Far more important, he says, is the thinking through of policies in the effort to make the welfare system more consistent and efficient.Any state can do it at minimal cost, he insists.

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