The philosopher Santayana warned that those who do not know their own history are doomed to repeat it. That admonition is especially pertinent to discussions of social welfare in Indiana, where assistance programs reflect historic attitudes about poverty and service delivery is largely a product of the state?s political culture. In Indiana, as elsewhere, supporters of social welfare programs and the critics of those programs are still arguing about policies dating to 1349, when England enacted the Statute of Laborers, prohibiting alms, or charity, for those who had the ability to work–that is, to "sturdy beggars." This first attempt to deal with what we would later call welfare was not about providing assistance; it was about forcing people to work.
The Poor You Have Always With You:
The Problem of the ‘Sturdy Beggar.’
Sheila Suess Kennedy*
The philosopher Santayana warned that those who do not know their own history are doomed to repeat it. That admonition is especially pertinent to discussions of social welfare in Indiana, where assistance programs reflect historic attitudes about poverty and service delivery is largely a product of the state’s political culture. In Indiana, as elsewhere, supporters of social welfare programs and the critics of those programs are still arguing about policies dating to 1349, when England enacted the Statute of Laborers, prohibiting alms, or charity, for those who had the ability to work—that is, to “sturdy beggars.”
This first attempt to deal with what we would later call welfare was not about providing assistance; it was about forcing people to work.
Not until 1601, in the reign of Elizabeth I, would a tax be levied to provide material assistance to the poor. The Elizabethan Poor Law established three categories of needy people: children without parents (or at least without parents who could care for them adequately); the able-bodied; and the incapacitated, helpless or “worthy” poor. Vagrants, or able-bodied persons who refused to work could be “committed to a house of correction, whipped, branded put in pillories and stoned, or even put to death.”
Help was limited to the deserving, or “worthy” poor.
The Elizabethan Poor Law incorporated a distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor that would be carried to the colonies and reproduced in the laws of the various states, including Indiana. It was the model that settlers brought to the New World; it was the approach adopted by the original thirteen colonies, and as people moved west, it was the approach incorporated in the Ordinance of 1787, which prescribed rules for governing the Northwest Territory. To a significant extent, the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, the “categorizing” of people needing assistance, and the emphasis upon work have remained the primary framework through which both federal and state policymakers view social welfare and poverty issues.
The belief that poverty is evidence of divine disapproval—that virtue is rewarded by material success—was held by a number of the early Protestants who settled the colonies, and that belief has continued to influence American law and culture. By the early 1900s, moral opprobrium directed at the poor found an ally in science, and poverty issues were caught up in the national debate between Social Darwinists like William Graham Summer and their critics—notably, William Jennings Bryan.
In language reminiscent of earlier admonitions against rewarding “sturdy beggars,” Sumner wrote:
“But the weak who constantly arouse the pity of humanitarians and philanthropists are the shiftless, the imprudent, the negligent, the impractical, and the inefficient, or they are the idle, the intemperate, the extravagant and the vicious. Now the troubles of these persons are constantly forced upon public attention, as if they and their interests deserved especial consideration, and a great portion of all organized and unorganized effort for the common welfare consists in attempts to relieve these classes of people….
It was not until the Great Depression that blaming the poor for their own poverty would become a minority position, and American lawmakers would widely acknowledge the need for some sort of social safety net. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the dislocations of the 1930’s or the passage of New Deal legislation changed Americans’ deeply-rooted beliefs about their own history or self-reliance. As social historian Stephanie Coontz has written, “Most Americans agree that prior to federal ‘interference’ in the 1930’s, the self-reliant family was the standard social unit of our society. Dependencies used to be cared for within the ‘natural family economy’ and even today the healthiest families ‘stand on their own two feet.’”
Coontz and others have demonstrated that this widely-held belief in self-sufficiency is inconsistent with the reality of the American experience. Pioneer families owed their existence to massive federal land grants and state economic investment in new lands. In the early twentieth century, western populations depended on government construction of dams and federally subsidized irrigation projects. During the Depression, government electrification projects and other government subsidies were critical to the survival of the family farm. In the 1950’s, Coontz notes, suburban families were “more dependent on government handouts than any so-called ‘underclass’ in recent U.S. history,” thanks to the GI Bill and the National Defense Education Act that subsidized the educations of a whole generation
; the Federal Housing Authority and the Veterans’ Administration, which allowed Americans to purchase homes with artificially low down-payments and subsidized interest rates; and billions of dollars of government-financed inventions, production processes, and research enabled businesses to flourish.
By the 1970s, Social Security had virtually wiped out the historic tendency for the elderly to be the poorest sector of the population. Even between 1965 and 1971, during the height of Great Society anti-poverty initiatives, 75 percent of American social welfare dollars went to the non-poor.
Nevertheless, despite the lessons of the Depression and the documented, pervasive reliance of middle and upper-income families on a wide variety of government assistance programs, acceptance of poor relief and welfare continues to be viewed by many Americans, including Hoosiers, as evidence of a moral or character deficit. That viewpoint is woven into the fabric of Indiana’s law.
The State Welfare System
Historically, Indiana’s approach to social welfare has mirrored the policies of the nation as a whole. This correspondence should not surprise us: the publication of Middletown
by Robert and Helen Lynd in 1929 put Muncie, Indiana on the map as the “typical” American community, and other studies have used Indianapolis as a similar example of the quintessential American city.
Furthermore, since the 1930s, welfare policies in all the states largely have been responsive to federal mandates. However, certain elements of Indiana’s welfare system can best be understood in the context of the state’s particular legal and political culture.
Unlike many states, Indiana’s constitution vests the state’s legal authority primarily in state-level institutions. There are no city charters, and “home rule” continues to elude municipal and county officials despite numerous efforts to legislate greater local autonomy. Governmental subdivisions have only such authority as has been specifically granted by the state, and not surprisingly, they zealously guard what power they do have.
Politically, Indiana is one of very few states with a surviving two-party system. While the state has been predictably Republican in Presidential contests for at least the last 30 years, Democrats are well represented in Indiana’s congressional delegation and hold a majority of city halls. The legislature is closely divided; in 2004, for example, although Republicans controlled the Senate by 14 seats, the Democrats controlled the House by one, confirming a trend that began in the late 20th
century. Local level politics, however, tell a different story; local jurisdictions are virtually all controlled by one party. Because party affiliation was originally rooted in opposing ethnic/religious cultures, the identity of the dominant party in any town or county is often a function of the ethnicity of those who originally settled there.
While America as a whole is religiously very diverse (albeit overwhelmingly Christian), many if not most regions of the country have been shaped by a majority religious culture. Massachusetts reflects its Catholic heritage, North Carolina’s culture is recognizably Baptist, Utah’s is predominantly Mormon, and so on. Indiana, however, is very religiously diverse; virtually none of its political subdivisions have a dominant religious culture. That religious diversity—and the corresponding need to bridge divisions growing out of competing worldviews—has contributed to the state’s political culture in a number of ways, not least by fostering what George Geib, a noted Indiana political historian, has called a “back stairs” or “let’s make a deal” political climate, in which negotiation and accommodation are preferred over confrontation.
Because state-level politics have historically been competitive, in the early days of the state, so-called “floating voters” were prized, and their votes were bought with patronage. Geib argues that the first “deserving poor” in Indiana were “floating voters” who would move to a one-party city or town, pledge support to its dominant party, and be rewarded with employment. “Politics in Indiana is rarely about issues.” Geib notes. “It is about patronage. Failure to understand the importance of patronage is failure to understand Indiana’s political history.”
The importance of patronage in Indiana history explains many things, including the persistence of the township trustee system of poor relief.
The legal organization of social welfare came hard on the heels of the passage of the Ordinance of 1787, which set up governmental structures for the Northwest Territory, including the areas which became Indiana. In 1790, the territorial legislature authorized the organization of counties and their division into townships, and provided for “overseers of the poor.”
The overseers were to investigate cases of need and report back to Justices of the Peace, who had the power to grant aid. A 1795 law established “outdoor relief” in Indiana (Indoor and outdoor relief were terms carried over from Elizabethan Poor Law. Outdoor relief meant that assistance was provided to the poor in their normal place of residence. Indoor relief meant the workhouse or the asylum).
These laws provided for the appointment of two agents, or overseers, in each township, and empowered them to levy taxes to establish workhouses for poor people who were able to work. Children whose parents were dead or otherwise unable to care for them could be bound out by the agents as apprentices. In 1799, the law was amended to allow the agents to take bids and similarly “farm out” to successful bidders those adults who were unable to support themselves.
In 1852, township trustees were made responsible for poor relief.
Poor relief was part of the criminal justice system, a circumstance that continued until 1936. The very first institutions established in Indiana were county jails and county poor asylums; the jails consisted of two apartments, one for debtors and another for lawbreakers. The first county poor asylum opened in 1824; twenty-five years later, every county had one. The language of the Indiana Constitutions of both 1816 and 1851 suggests that these facilities were intended to be homes for the aged and infirm, but the reality was quite different. “The poor asylum was, in reality, an unlikely combination of mental institution, nursing home, hospital, agricultural enterprise, retirement village, orphanage, and refuge for the blind, deaf, retarded or physically handicapped—or any combination of these.”
Interestingly, although disease was rampant, the only reference to the sick in the poor law of 1795 was in an instruction to the overseer for handling cases where the poor residing in one jurisdiction would “sicken or die” in another. Not until 1838 were overseers required to provide medical aid for poor people who needed it.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, a number of private citizens and voluntary associations expressed concern about conditions in county poor asylums, and worked to provide specialized institutions for the mentally ill and for blind and deaf children. In 1844, Indiana opened the Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb (now the Indiana School for the Deaf), and three years later, the Indiana Institute for the Education of the Blind (now the Indiana School for the Blind). Private orphans’ homes were established in an effort to keep children out of poor asylums, where they got little education and were surrounded by adults who were likely to be either sick or criminal. Partly in response to these voluntary efforts, the legislature authorized the county commissioners to establish county orphanages and to employ a matron to care for the children. County homes soon became important centers of patronage for the commissioners who hired their staffs and chose the vendors to furnish their supplies. Other specialized institutions were established in due course. In 1845, the legislature authorized construction of the first of several facilities for the mentally ill, the Indiana Lunatic Asylum. Gradually, institutions intended for the poor or disabled were separated from those meant to serve the needs of criminal justice.
In the 1880s, a national reform movement emerged to address issues of social welfare, spurred in part by the graphic depictions of poverty in the novels of Charles Dickens, and in part by a growing recognition that the systems in place were “expensive, inadequate and unsatisfactory.”
In Indiana, patronage abuses were widespread, and ranged from poor management to outright fraud. Scandals were frequent. “State employees were more often than not patronage employees who could be, and often were, replaced whenever one political party defeated the other. Superintendencies of the state hospitals, prisons and reformatories were particular political plums.”
In 1889, pressured by reformers, the legislature established a Board of State Charities to investigate the entire system of public charitable and penal institutions and make annual reports and recommendations for improvement. Over the ensuing decades, the State Board was given additional duties, and county boards were also established; however, none of them was given meaningful authority. They were advisory only, and depended upon appeals to lawmakers and the public conscience for their effectiveness.
Legal responses to the scandals of the late 1800s also affected township trustees. Prior to 1897, township assistance had been funded by county budgets. In 1895, when trustees were first required to report on their activities, more than 70,000 people out of a total state population of less than 2.2 million were receiving poor relief.
Disclosure of the numbers caused a sensation. “In 1897, because of allegedly irresponsible expenditures, townships were required to pay for all assistance which they authorized. Local financing was thus adopted to encourage fiscal responsibility. The 1897 Acts also provided for more detailed reporting and accounting procedures.”
The change, it was argued, would act as a check on the trustee’s activities, and provide an “incentive for reducing costs, and a means of discouraging pauperism in Indiana.”
Two years later a second law required the trustees to co-operate with private charities and to provide relief “without encouraging economic dependency.”
For the next several years, Indiana’s patchwork, reactive approach to social welfare continued. The state established state and county hospitals and provided for state supervision of the care provided to dependent and neglected children. Children were also the intended beneficiaries of a number of so-called “protective laws” that included mandatory school attendance, prohibitions against importation of dependent children, child labor laws, and penalties for parents who neglected their children. In 1919, a “Mother’s Aid” law authorized financial assistance to needy mothers in order to prevent the breakup of families for economic reasons.
The Great Depression brought needs of an entirely different magnitude. Poor relief had always been considered a state and local responsibility, and President Herbert Hoover did not believe the federal government should get involved, no matter how dire the circumstances. Instead, he urged voluntary agencies to fill the needs of the nation’s “new poor”—needs they were manifestly unable to meet. When Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, he was faced with a level of destitution that had no precedent in American history. Roosevelt’s response was to implement a number of national public works programs: the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, the National Youth Administration and the Works Progress Administration (later the Works Projects Administration) provided work and dignity to millions. By keeping the wages paid by such programs lower than those paid by the private sector, the programs encouraged participants to take private employment once it became available.
In addition to the works programs, funds for poor relief were provided to the states through the Emergency Relief and Reconstruction Act of 1932
, and the Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933.
The effect of such legislation was to transfer responsibility for a large number of poor citizens from township and county units of government to state and federal government agencies. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration, created by the Act, was the first national relief agency. Although its main programs were emergency work efforts, it also directed cash payments to needy individuals who passed a “means test.”
At the beginning of the Depression, Indiana’s only resources for meeting the needs of the unemployed were the township trustees and private philanthropy. In its Acts of 1933, the Indiana legislature created a Governor’s Commission on Unemployment Relief; the Commission would eventually assume responsibility for determining which counties were entitled to federal aid and for ensuring compliance with the federal rules that came with the money.
That same year, as part of a reorganization of Indiana government, the Board of State Charities became part of the executive branch, under then-Governor Paul McNutt, and was renamed the State Department of Public Welfare.
In his 1935 State of the Union message, President Roosevelt announced his intention to propose legislation that would provide unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, and benefits for children, mothers, the handicapped, and “other aspects of dependency.”
Roosevelt’s proposals were patterned after social insurance measures that had been in place in much of Europe since the early 1900s. Congress responded by passing the Social Security Act of 1935.
Social welfare funding became a major item in the federal budget, ushering in an increasingly complex relationship between the federal government and the states in the funding and operating of the social safety net.
The Social Security Act conditioned eligibility for funds on state financial and operational participation and on the designation of a single state agency to administer the program. The Welfare Act of 1936
brought Indiana into compliance; it replaced the Board of State Charities with the State Department of Public Welfare, created county-level welfare agencies in each of Indiana’s 92 counties, and abolished a variety of existing agencies and pension systems.
With passage of the Welfare Act, the legislature established the framework within which the state operates to this day: welfare programs were supervised by the state, but administered by the counties. (This administrative arrangement remains, even after the abolition of County Welfare Boards and the creation of FSSA in 1991.) Politically, such a system makes enormous sense in a state like Indiana, where control of state-level patronage can change with the next election, but local political control and patronage are relatively stable. Such considerations, along with Indiana’s general preference for local control, outweighed arguments for a more centralized welfare system, and even after the state assumed much more direct control of county welfare offices, those same considerations protected—and continue to protect—the original township trustee system.
From 1936 until the welfare reform efforts of the 1990s, the State Welfare Department administered state and federal legislative initiatives and responded to the shifting priorities they represented. State participation in Medicaid, which Congress enacted in 1965, required especially significant financial and administrative resources. (Indiana, characteristically, was among the last states to participate in the program). Periodically, the Department reorganized, regrouped, and added or subtracted program responsibilities. Probably the most significant reorganization occurred in 1991, during the Bayh Administration, when programs that had been scattered throughout state government were consolidated with the Welfare Department into a massive new agency, named the Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA).
The township trustee system has an even longer pedigree. “Since 1897, with the emergence of the role of the township trustee as chief administrator,” Louis Rosenberg noted in 1973, “township level financing and general assistance have not been significantly changed.”
The statement was still true in the first years of the 21st
century, despite the systemic defects that Rosenberg and many others identified.
Township trustees administer what is sometimes called general assistance. Unlike most federal and state welfare programs, general assistance is not “categorical,” that is, it does not require that a recipient fall into a specified category of person entitled to aid. Trustees have discretion to provide virtually any goods or services in emergency situations, and considerable discretion otherwise. Trustees can—and frequently do—hire family members for staff positions, pay rent for offices located in their homes, and reward political allies by listing them as preferred vendors. (Trustees do not give cash assistance; instead, they issue vouchers for goods and services. Those vouchers are redeemed by “approved” vendors.) The trustee has final authority over the township assistance program; the only supervision provided is by an elected township advisory board and the State Board of Accounts. The jurisdiction of the Board of Accounts is limited to assuring that monies are not stolen or misappropriated; it has no authority to review the manner in which aid is dispensed, the adequacy of that aid, or the consistency of different townships’ operations.
General assistance remained important in Indiana even after the introduction of federal categorical programs, because the state and federal social safety net left so many gaps. Under Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a family with children, whose parents were both in the home and not disabled, was generally ineligible for assistance. A single man who was neither aged nor disabled was not eligible. Poor families without children were ineligible. Those who were temporarily needy or waiting for approval to participate in a welfare program, fell outside the ambit of the safety net.
Welfare reform has done little to change that situation or to fill those gaps.
Even people receiving welfare often did not receive an amount sufficient to live on. A report issued in 1972 by the Community Services Council of Metropolitan Indianapolis calculated that an Old Age Assistance recipient without other income would be able to cover only 43 percent of basic needs with the maximum allowable benefit.
Payments under other programs were similarly inadequate. While Indiana has always been home to a robust nonprofit sector, private charity has never been sufficient to fill the gap. In 1967, all private agencies in Marion County combined provided approximately 5 percent of the total amount of general and emergency relief distributed in the County.
The situation today is not appreciably different, and the need for general assistance has not abated.
Given the inadequacies in benefits and the inability of private charity to fill the gaps, township general assistance has often meant the difference between eating and going hungry. Unfortunately, the system is wasteful and incredibly inefficient. It has resisted efforts at reform, however, largely because it continues to serve as an important source of patronage for local political parties and for the trustees, who wield considerable—if largely unrecognized—political power in the state.
The defects identified by Louis Rosenberg in 1973 continue to characterize the system thirty years later. Those defects are both administrative and constitutional.
- Because the law provides that every township have its own trustee and poor relief system, there are no economies of scale. Each of Indiana’s 92 counties and 1008 Townships supports an office with administrative staff and overhead, even in small or thinly populated townships where overhead costs can easily exceed the relatively minimal sums spent for actual poor relief. A 1972 Indiana Welfare Task Force study found that county-level welfare offices administered relief at substantially lower cost than did the trustees. Furthermore, the system prevents resources from being allocated in accordance with need. Indiana’s poor are not evenly distributed through the state; they are concentrated in a few urban centers, notably Center Township in Marion County and Calumet Township in Lake County. Those townships periodically face fiscal crises; in the past, Marion County has had to issue bonds to cover poor relief costs that exceeded available revenues.
- Trustee poor relief must be funded from township tax revenues. The tax base of townships—the smallest unit of Indiana government—varies as widely as the population of poor residents, leading to significant discrepancies in township abilities to fund poor relief. This raises serious questions about uniformity and equal treatment. (Not surprisingly, studies of the system have found substantial disparities in benefits.)
- The ability of township trustees to exercise discretion is both a strength and a weakness. Discretion allows help that is tailored to real need, but the absence of standards also invites abuse. Eligibility determinations, amount and duration of assistance, selection of vendors authorized to accept the vouchers issued for goods and services, are all decisions made by the trustee, and checks on the exercise of that discretion are minimal in all but the most populous townships.
- There are serious questions of due process—or absence of due process—raised by township assistance laws and practices. The general lack of standards, particularly when coupled with notice and hearing inadequacies that have characterized the highly informal township assistance process, invite due process violations. This is especially troubling because applicants for township poor relief are unlikely to have the resources to recognize the violations, much less litigate them. Trustees are highly unlikely to be held constitutionally accountable by those they are supposed to serve.
There have been periodic efforts to consolidate, reform or even eliminate township poor relief, but constituencies for such changes have been small. The trustees are well-organized and politically influential, and poor relief is their major remaining responsibility. The system may be costly, inefficient, and frequently unfair, but significant legislative change appears unlikely given its history. Changes that have occurred have usually been prompted by litigation, and most of that has been federal and stemming from cases originating elsewhere, such as Goldberg v. Kelly
in which the United States Supreme Court addressed due process issues in the context of welfare benefits.
, As Rosenberg noted, Indiana courts have been highly deferential to legislative delegations of discretion to the trustees, and in any event, challenges have not been numerous.
Contemporary Welfare Reform
In 1996, Congress and the Clinton Administration agreed upon a massive reformation of the way the government provides assistance to poor Americans. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996
(PRWORA), a response to years of criticism of the welfare system, was intended to “change welfare as we know it” by emphasizing work and the temporary nature of assistance. PRWORA replaced AFDC (previously called Aid to Dependent Children), a part of the Social Security Act that had been the primary income assistance program in Indiana for sixty years.
Whatever the merits of PRWORA or the deficiencies of the system that preceded it, the legislation reflected long-standing and increasingly vocal public beliefs about self-reliance, poverty, and the proper role of government. Social critics noted that the broad constituency for “self-reliance” focused its criticisms of government involvement almost exclusively upon the relatively minor portion of social welfare spending that was directed to the poor. Other programs such as Social Security and Medicare for older Americans, Pell Grants for students, Veterans’ Administration mortgages for veterans, and tax incentives for business, did not carry a similar stigma.
Much of the rhetoric, popular and political, was grounded in familiar historical debates about the nature of poverty and distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor. While the “sturdy beggar” was not explicitly invoked, policymakers spent considerable energy trying to fashion programs that would require recipients to work. Job training was made a priority, and other changes supported the “work-first” emphasis: Time limits on assistance replaced categorical entitlements, and “family caps” precluded higher payments to families having additional children while receiving welfare.
On this issue, Indiana acted in advance of most states. In June of 1994, the state had requested that the federal government grant “waivers” of some of the federal requirements that restricted its administration of AFDC. The state asked for permission to conduct a new program as an “experiment;” most AFDC recipients (called the “treatment group”) would be subject to the new rules, but a smaller number (the “control group”) would remain governed by the prior AFDC regulations. The two groups would be compared in order to determine the effectiveness of the new program. (Having two groups made evaluation easier, but the plan prompted a lawsuit alleging that the differential treatment violated equal protection guarantees. That suit, N.B. v. Sybinski,
In December, a first set of waivers was granted, and changes were phased in. In anticipation of federal approval of a second request, the Indiana legislature passed a number of additional program restrictions in 1995; however, the federal government did not grant all of the second set of waivers requested, leaving the state with a number of statutes that violated federal law.
Many of the changes made by the waivers anticipated portions of PRWORA, especially the “work-first” emphasis.
AFDC was a highly regulated matching funds program. Under PRWORA, the state receives a block grant with relatively few restrictions. The money is to be used to provide Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Like its predecessor, the program is administered by the most recent incarnation of the state welfare department—the Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA)—through county offices which provide services largely through contracts negotiated with for-profit and non-profit intermediaries. Since the passage of PRWORA and the subsequent lapse of Indiana’s waivers, FSSA has embraced the new approach.
Indiana also has been a national leader in the implementation of Section 104 of PRWORA, known popularly as Charitable Choice. Recognizing that most social services are provided by government contractors and responding to concerns that “faith-based organizations” had encountered barriers to participation, Congress included a specific requirement in Section 104 that states contract with faith-based social service providers on the same basis as with other non-profits. The bill specified that “pervasively sectarian” organizations were not to be discriminated against, that they should be allowed to maintain hiring policies based upon their religious dictates, and that they could not be required to remove religious iconography from areas where services were delivered.
President George W. Bush made Charitable Choice the centerpiece of his administration’s “Faith-Based Initiative,” and the approach triggered an increasingly acrimonious public debate. Since no new funds were appropriated for the social services involved and since significant numbers of religious nonprofits have historically contracted with government agencies, some scholars have suggested that the new initiatives are less about adding religious contractors than about preferring some religious approaches over others. Religious providers who have traditionally partnered with government—Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, Jewish Welfare and the like—have tended to view poverty as a social justice issue. Their services are “faith-based” only in the sense that they are based on a religious duty to feed the hungry and clothe the naked while working to change the social factors believed to cause poverty; there is little explicit religious content to their service delivery. To its critics Charitable Choice appears to target religious providers who consider poverty evidence of personal moral failure or “poor values” and whose services focus upon transformation of individual recipients.
Charitable Choice initiatives also assumed the existence of significant untapped resources, the so-called “armies of compassion, or volunteers” that could be enlisted to help government fight poverty. In fiscally and legally conservative Indiana, the promise of partners who would help carry the load was particularly attractive. In 2001 FSSA employed a private consulting firm, Crowe Chizek, at $250,000 a year, to reach out to “untapped resources” among religious congregations and nonprofits.
Workshops were held around the state, and faith-based organizations were encouraged to bid for contracts to deliver social programs, especially job training and placement. Despite those efforts, participation by new religious contractors has been minimal, perhaps inhibited by cutbacks in funding necessitated by the state’s severe fiscal crisis during the first decade of the 21st
In September of 2003, after five years of welfare reform, an evaluation report commissioned by FSSA identified the goals of Indiana’s welfare program: to increase client employment and decrease their reliance on welfare; to make work more financially rewarding than public assistance; and to encourage responsible parenting. Despite the “consistency over time in goals and approach,” the report noted substantial fluctuation in both the welfare caseload and the state’s economy over the period of the study. Like most states, Indiana had seen its caseload decline significantly immediately following passage of PRWORA. However, a very substantial part of the decline was the result of robust economic growth and attendant job availability. Virtually anyone who wanted to work could find a job, and contrary to popular opinion, most welfare recipients do want to work. The situation changed in mid-2000. The economy entered a recession, the state faced budget shortfalls, unemployment climbed, and welfare rolls grew once again.
The evaluation reported a mixture of successes and failures:
“[T]he program has had real effects on participants, increasing employment and decreasing their use of welfare. The size of these effects is generally in the middle range of impacts found for welfare reform programs in other states. Indiana’s program also has been cost effective, with the savings in welfare payments outweighing the costs of providing additional child care and employment services. The observed impacts, however, have not on average resulted in increased income for families. By that measure, therefore, the program has not made families better off financially.
Indiana’s legal and political systems continue to reflect the state’s historic priorities: keeping taxes low and protecting political patronage and the “status quo.” Indiana’s poor citizens do not vote, they do not organize, and they do not make political contributions; accordingly, they rarely are high on the political agenda. The lack of legislative attention paid to welfare programs and poverty issues, however, does not mean that welfare in Indiana is working.
The state’s administration of poor relief and welfare programs continues to be plagued by scandals and allegations of mismanagement. Throughout 2002 and 2003, there was a constant barrage of news stories alleging improprieties and patronage abuses at FSSA, and several criminal investigations have been launched. The sheer size of the agency poses problems for program managers and frustrates attempts to ensure compliance with federal rules.
Over the past twenty years, there has also been a steady increase in the number of lawsuits brought to protect the rights of the needy. A very partial list of those suits is illustrative of the problems:
- Dixon v. Davis and Stone v. Hamilton were challenges to Indiana’s administration of the food stamp program. In Dixon, the court ordered the State to correct improper denials of food stamps, and Stone held that the state had violated federal due process guarantees by demanding that poor recipients reimburse food stamp overpayments that had been caused by agency error.
- There have been a large number of cases involving Medicaid. Most—notably Bailey v. Sullivan, Taylor v. Sullivan, Thie v. Davis, Jones v. Davis, Elliot v. Humphries, Humphries v. Day and Minniear v. Davis—have involved successful assertions that Indiana was not following federal law. Another case, Collins ex rel Collins v. Hamilton, successfully challenged Indiana’s practice of denying funding for medically necessary in-patient psychiatric services for Medicaid-eligible children. As a result of that policy, parents and guardians of such children faced a Hobson’s choice—they could have their children made wards of the state in a CHINS proceeding (which effectively declares the parent unfit and deems the child “in need of services”), in which case the county of residence would be required to pay for the hospitalization. If parents opt to keep custody of their child, they have a different choice—that of forgoing treatment.
- A long line of cases has involved the state’s administration of AFDC and TANF and Trustee-administered poor relief, while still others have challenged provisions of Indiana landlord-tenant or creditor-debtor laws, which have generally favored the landlord and the creditor. Results of these challenges have been mixed.
What we learn from these cases is that Indiana has been consistently reluctant to spend money on programs benefiting the poor. Fiscal concerns have repeatedly trumped humanitarian ones. Over and over, it has been necessary to force public officials to provide even those benefits that federal law requires (indeed, virtually all of these cases have been brought on grounds of alleged state noncompliance with federal law). In this, Indiana is not markedly different from most other Midwest states. With the notable exception of Wisconsin, none of Indiana’s neighbors have pioneered comprehensive welfare programs, or made it a priority to address the needs of the poor.
Lost in the welter of litigation and concerns about local control and property tax levels is recognition of the mismatch between existing welfare systems and the needs of poor people. In 2001, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities issued a report entitled “Poverty Despite Work,” focusing upon the nation’s substantial and growing number of working parents unable to reach economic self-sufficiency. In 1999, Indiana reported 66,000 such families, and a child poverty rate of 11.7percent—lower than the national average, but well above the state’s overall poverty rate of 9.9 percent for that year. The number of Indiana families receiving TANF, which had declined by 52 percent during the economic growth period between 1993 and 2000, rose 38 percent between 2000 and 2002, to 48,000 families. Approximately 32,000 Indiana children lacked health insurance in 1999, and child care was unaffordable for many.
In 2003, “Prospects for Indiana Families” used data from the 2000 census to paint a similar picture. In 2000, there were 6,080,485 Hoosiers, 5.9 million of whom lived in 2.3 million households. The African-American population of the state had increased by 18 percent since 1990, and the Hispanic population had more than doubled. The state had 556,000 married couples with children, 160,000 single mothers and 51,400 single fathers. Median household income was just over $41,000 annually. This was the lowest among the Great Lakes States and 30th
of all of the states, and—more worrisome—had declined by 4.8 percent since 1998. The numbers were a bit better when median family income was measured; at $50,261, Indiana ranked 21st
nationally, and fifth of the six Great Lakes states. The report found that Indiana wages were continuing to decline as the state economy shifted from manufacturing to service jobs, that job growth was concentrated in lower wage industries, and that the wage gap between men and women was among the largest in the nation.
Indiana’s poor are disproportionately urban and, as noted previously, not well served by a costly, anachronistic township trustee system spread over 1008 offices. The state welfare apparatus consists of a welter of programs, divisions, and regulations that are difficult even for lawyers to understand. Programs and administration vary from county to county. Many needy individuals do not know what their rights are, what help is available, or where to go to find out. Benefit levels are frequently too low to cover living expenses, especially for the disabled or mentally ill who often do not have the option of employment. For the “sturdy” poor who can work, lack of access to adequate child care and transportation are often insurmountable obstacles.
Poverty levels cannot be considered in a void; they are to a considerable extent a function of economic development. Economic development in turn requires a public school system capable of producing an educated workforce, and a civic culture—“quality of life”—that is attractive to businesses and those they employ. Included in “quality of life” are public amenities of all kinds: public transportation, museums and libraries, vibrant arts communities, public parks and universities. Indiana has historically been unwilling to invest in most such amenities, believing that the best way to attract business and create jobs is to keep taxes low. Many of the legal and policy changes that would be most meaningful to the poor—reliable public transportation, good schools with all-day kindergarten and free textbooks, affordable health care—would arguably drive economic development as well, but thus far that argument has not been persuasive to Indiana lawmakers.
The interrelated nature of these issues can be daunting, and the policy prescriptions are contested. But a start might be made by revamping the current township trustee system and making better use of the dollars now being spent on township poor relief administration. Indiana’s ability to do so will depend upon the willingness of lawmakers to put the needs of the state’s most vulnerable citizens ahead of local patronage considerations. If history is any guide, that willingness may be a long time coming.
Indiana’s legal and political systems continue to reflect the state’s historic priorities: keeping taxes low and protecting political patronage and the “status quo.” Indiana’s poor citizens do not vote, they do not organize, and they do not make political contributions; accordingly, they rarely are high on the political agenda. The lack of legislative attention paid to welfare programs and poverty issues, however, does not mean that welfare in Indiana is working.The state’s administration of poor relief and welfare programs continues to be plagued by scandals and allegations of mismanagement. Throughout 2002 and 2003, there was a constant barrage of news stories alleging improprieties and patronage abuses at FSSA, and several criminal investigations have been launched. The sheer size of the agency poses problems for program managers and frustrates attempts to ensure compliance with federal rules.
The legal organization of social welfare came hard on the heels of the passage of the Ordinance of 1787, which set up governmental structures for the Northwest Territory, including the areas which became Indiana. In 1790, the territorial legislature authorized the organization of counties and their division into townships, and provided for “overseers of the poor.” The overseers were to investigate cases of need and report back to Justices of the Peace, who had the power to grant aid. A 1795 law established “outdoor relief” in Indiana (Indoor and outdoor relief were terms carried over from Elizabethan Poor Law. Outdoor relief meant that assistance was provided to the poor in their normal place of residence. Indoor relief meant the workhouse or the asylum). These laws provided for the appointment of two agents, or overseers, in each township, and empowered them to levy taxes to establish workhouses for poor people who were able to work. Children whose parents were dead or otherwise unable to care for them could be bound out by the agents as apprentices. In 1799, the law was amended to allow the agents to take bids and similarly “farm out” to successful bidders those adults who were unable to support themselves. In 1852, township trustees were made responsible for poor relief.