October 17, 2010

Maine welfare system data proves hard to get

DHHS is building a page online to allow people to track data such as caseloads and spending.

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

There is nearly universal agreement on one criticism of Maine's welfare system:

Getting detailed information on what the state spends and who gets the money can be a tall order.

"It's amazing how difficult it is to get information out of (the Department of Health and Human Services)," said Steve Bowen of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank.

Bowen said he was forced to rely largely on U.S. Census data and other federal numbers when compiling a recent critical report, "Fix the System." Then, he said, DHHS criticized his report for not using the right numbers.

The Maine Sunday Telegram ran into similar obstacles while compiling information for this series.

A reporter was asked to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain spending and enrollment numbers for several core social programs, and then was told by a DHHS attorney that the data was not available.

When asked for the same information in different ways, the department did gradually provide much of the requested data.

Some information, such as General Assistance caseloads reported to the state by each Maine community, was not provided. DHHS officials said the agency compiles the data for the federal government, but that it's not easily broken down or compiled the way others want to see it.

DHHS does post monthly enrollment data, broken down by county and community, on its website. It does not publish annual reports that would show trends. The agency presents reports to the Legislature every two years, but the reports are more policy-oriented and do not include details about each of its social programs.

Defenders of Maine's safety net programs say they would like to have more information, too. But they say the lack of data is due to the complexity of the system and the department being overwhelmed with cases and changing rules.

Some critics, however, argue it reflects a culture that is focused more on providing benefits than on moving people out of poverty and dependence.

"Is it working? We never ask those questions," Bowen said. "There's no data on outcomes."

DHHS Commissioner Brenda Harvey said the department has been working hard to be more accountable.

"I wouldn't pretend that our information is always as transparent as we want it to be," she said.

Harvey said the department has been building a new page online that will allow people to track basic data, such as caseloads and spending. The so-called dashboard could go live this month, she said.

"We're going to make that a transparent data source that is updated on a regular basis," she said. "It's not going to have every answer to every question." But, she said, "let's at least get this basic picture of the department out there. I want people to have that data."

Gov. John Baldacci said he hopes the effort will help ease public frustration with the welfare system.

"We've got to make it easier for people to come in and get the information and if we are able to do that, more people will be able to see what we see," he said.

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: jrichardson@pressherald.com

 

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