Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 25, 2008: County stiffs the poor

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Posted: July 25, 2008

Our law firm, Legal Action of Wisconsin, filed a lawsuit July 7 with the goal of keeping poor people from going hungry and getting sick. It is shameful that, in this country, a lawsuit is even necessary. There should not be even a remote chance that the poor will go without food or medical care.

But there is an element of hardheartedness in our society that begrudges the poor anything, including food, and the riches possessed by this country go elsewhere.

Our case is about pervasive mix-ups and snafus unanswered telephones, crowded waiting rooms, unprocessed documents at the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services that have denied food stamps and medical care to poor people at times when they need them the most.

Because of these denials, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit were forced to skip meals and go without essential medications. One child, unable to obtain medical care, suffered a relapse. Another family could not afford to continue telephone service, often a lifeline in an emergency, and was forced to discontinue it. A young girl was unable to obtain medical care for her hearing impairment.

These shameful deprivations are happening in Wisconsin, not some desperately poor Third World country.

The approach used by the government agencies involved appears to be that, whenever there is bureaucratic confusion over eligibility, food stamps and medical assistance should be denied first and confusion sorted out later. There seems to be a presumption that our clients are cheating or that any confusion is their fault, so they should not be granted any assistance because they probably don۪t deserve it.

Despite the nation۪s increasing recognition that the economy is in a terrible state, and that many Americans are losing their jobs, losing the equity in their homes, and teetering on the brink of poverty, there seems to be a persistent societal resentment of those who need government assistance.

One comment published after we filed our lawsuit was: “I wonder if anyone used the delay as an opportunity to look for work.”

In fact, all of the plaintiffs but one have jobs, and that one is too disabled to work.

It reflects unfavorably on our society and economy that many working families, like our clients, aren۪t paid enough to buy enough food or to afford medical care and are forced to struggle to obtain the public help that they need.

Thousands of families in Milwaukee who seek food stamps or medical assistance are given only one general telephone number to call for information. Caseworkers no longer have individual telephone numbers. Those who prefer to walk in must go to one of Milwaukee County۪s two offices.

On the phone or in the office, they encounter long waits, waits that are intolerable when they must take unpaid time off work to go to an office. Often, there is no one at the county to see or talk to. On any given day, large numbers of Milwaukee County caseworkers do not report for work. Caseworkers are often impossible to reach. The state agency has known about these problems for many years and has done little.

Providing significant additional resources to the state and county would doubtless help this situation considerably.

The Journal Sentinel reported recently that Milwaukee may lose from $700,000 to $1 million in federal Community Development Block Grant funds after losing $1 million each year since 2001.

As columnist Eugene Kane recently wrote in this newspaper, Milwaukee residents get less regard than Iraqis. The U.S. military budget is roughly equal to the combined military budgets of all other nations $572 billion in 2007 or $1,800 for every resident of the United States. A study of Cleveland, a working-class city similar to Milwaukee, showed that its share of the $522.5 billion that we have spent on the Iraq war is $479.2 million. This amount could have secured health care for 24,772 children.

The problems our lawsuit attempts to address can be solved. Making life tolerable for distressed people here at home is simply a matter of priorities. It is past time that we changed our priorities.

John F. Ebbott is executive director of Legal Action of Wisconsin.

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