Endless struggle or revolving door?

2014-06-08T00:00:00Z 2014-06-13T16:44:07Z Endless struggle or revolving door?Marc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
June 08, 2014 12:00 am  • 

The 73,069 people who received $5.3 million in poor relief from township trustees in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties in 2013 represent a heavy burden on local government resources, local government officials said.

The three counties comprise about 12 percent of Indiana's population, but they account for nearly 25 percent of the people receiving township poor relief statewide, a Times computer-assisted analysis of state and local poor relief shows.

The actual dollars in housing, food, utilities and other assistance provided by the 42 township trustees in the three counties in 2013 accounted for 15 percent of the $35.7 million in township aid provided statewide.

In 2014, the aid has gone to people like Michael Ratkay, 42, of Hessville, who was receiving North Township aid in March after struggling to pay bills.

Ratkay said he lost his position as a crane operator in 2010. It was a job he held since graduating from high school, and he wasn't prepared for the loss or lack of other opportunities in an ailing economy.

Township aid also has gone to people like Lisa Carpenter, 46, of South Haven, who received help paying her $400 NIPSCO bill from the Portage Township trustee's office recently after losing her remodeling company.

Township trustees in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties provide front-line financial help to the poor or those in the middle class who find themselves suddenly jobless.

But the aid provided goes beyond the dollars township trustees issued directly. In 2013, the region's township trustees also referred needy applicants to another $7.8 million in government and private aid, such as federal food stamps and local food pantries.

For many of those who receive township aid, it's a struggle that begins anew every 30 days, when recipients of township relief from the previous month are eligible to reapply for more aid.

Critics of the township poor-relief system argue a service originally intended as temporary, emergency support has become a revolving door in which recipients apply each month and come to depend on it in a permanent way.

One region critic, who has pushed to reform such spending practices in the region's most impoverished township, Calumet Township, argues differences in the way trustees dole out and enforce requirements for receiving poor relief illustrate the need to review current practices and ensure statewide uniformity.

Trustees in some of the most poverty-stricken region townships said they're holding aid recipients accountable by requiring those who are able, to work off their benefits through various odd jobs, including maintenance at township parks and clerical work in township and municipal offices.

Officials at Portage Township, in Porter County, said they're pushing even more accountability among those receiving aid by directing recipients to classes showing them how to live on meager incomes.

Workfare, not welfare

On a snowy day in March, more than 20 people gathered in a maintenance building at Wicker Park in Highland, sanding and refinishing picnic tables.

Every day, a bus runs from the North Township trustee's offices in Hammond and East Chicago, transporting recipients of poor relief to the park and other township and municipal sites.

It's all part of the township's workfare, a program under Indiana statute in which recipients of township poor relief are required to work for the aid — at a rate equal to hourly minimum wage — until the value of the relief is paid off.

While recipients can receive exemptions from workfare if they document disabilities or other health reasons, North Township Trustee Frank Mrvan said his office strictly enforces workfare participation for aid recipients who are healthy enough to work.

Mrvan's township encompasses some of the most poverty-laden cities of the region's urban core, including East Chicago and Hammond, where 36 percent and 26 percent of residents, respectively, were living in poverty in 2012, U.S. Census estimates show.

Nicole Barmea, 19, of Hammond, said she knows Mrvan's office is serious about enforcing the workfare program.

In March, Barmea helped file paperwork at the trustee's Circle of Services facility in Hammond. Her mother applied for and received assistance paying the family's NIPSCO bill that month.

But Barmea said her mother is on disability, so the trustee's office asked for the next available, able-bodied person from the household to participate in workfare; that was Barmea.

"It's fine," she said while organizing file folders in the office. "I want to contribute."

Mrvan said requiring one family member from a household receiving aid to "work it off" in workfare provides several benefits.

Those without work are given responsibility, are required to give something back to the community and sometimes find permanent jobs in township, municipal and other offices they serve.

Throughout the three counties, the efforts of workfare recipients provided an estimated $1.8 million in work for township, municipal and nonprofit agencies in 2013, according to the cumulative financial reports of the 42 region townships.

Mrvan's insistence on the benefits of strict workfare participation is backed by state financial reports.

North Township's 18,304 recipients of various types of township aid in 2013 collectively worked about 204,173 hours in workfare, for an average of 11.2 hours of work per recipient, The Times analysis shows.

By contrast, the 12,309 recipients of poor relief in Calumet Township, which includes the region's most impoverished city of Gary, worked about 20,620 hours in workfare, for an average of about 1.7 hours per recipient.

But that was still higher than the statewide average of 1.2 hours in workfare per recipient for 2013, The Times analysis shows.

Need for reform?

Griffith Councilman Rick Ryfa, a longtime critic of Calumet Township policies and spending practices, said the obvious differences in the way local and state townships enforce workfare are just one symptom of a larger problem.

Ryfa, who along with other Griffith and region lawmakers pushed successful Calumet Township spending requirements through the General Assembly in 2013, said he would like to see legislation requiring more uniform spending and poor-relief standards among township trustees statewide.

"Part of the problem is the system, which is supposed to provide emergency and temporary assistance, allows for continual relief — month after month and year after year," Ryfa said. "The time has come for a uniform policy to end the cycle."

Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin, who is fighting the spending reforms Ryfa has sought through a civil lawsuit, concedes some recipients of township aid become generational poor-relief applicants.

However, she pointed out the need in her township is among the greatest in the state. Gary, the largest city in the township, had nearly 40 percent of its residents living in poverty in 2012, U.S. Census estimates show.

Elgin said her township has struggled with out-of-town people, including some Chicago residents, attempting to apply for aid at her office.

She said her office has been weeding such applicants out and denying aid. Elgin noted annual applications for aid numbered about 30,000 when she took office in 2003. The number stood at about 20,000 in 2013, according to her annual reports.

The struggles of providing poor relief in the region's most impoverished township have gone beyond screening applicants and state legislation targeting Calumet Township's spending.

Federal agents raided Elgin's office in March, seizing boxes of evidence and at least one desktop computer while serving a search warrant for undisclosed reasons.

Breaking the cycle

Despite their struggles and controversies, region township trustees have reported some success in breaking the cycle of poverty among applicants for local poor relief.

The 2013 annual reports of trustees across Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties note the placement of 516 applicants in jobs or training programs.

The 516 placements accounted for less than 1 percent of the 73,069 people in the three counties who received township poor relief in the same time period.

But North Township Trustee Mrvan said the positive impact township trustees have on the lives of those in need can't be ignored.

Marvin Mobley, 57, of East Chicago, agrees.

Seven years ago, Mobley said he sought North Township aid after losing his job, watching his parents die and losing all income.

He began performing various maintenance tasks in the township's workfare program, and his hard work caught the eye of the trustee's office, Mrvan said.

"One day, he literally jumped in front of my car and asked for an opportunity to work for us as a regular employee," Mrvan said.

Mrvan relented, hiring Mobley to a $12-per-hour position doing township and park maintenance.

"This has all been such a blessing," Mobley said.

Natasha Stearns, 23, who interviews applicants for poor relief at the Portage Township trustee's office, said she also understands poverty firsthand.

When she was 13, Stearns said she became homeless and relied on various friends for shelter over the course of a year.

"It pushed me to want to do more," Stearns said.

Stearns is now pursuing a social work degree from Purdue University North Central and helping aid applicants work through their financial hardships in Portage Township.

Stearns is helping lead a recent push at the office of referring applicants to financial management training, in which people with limited means learn to more effectively stretch the money they have.

"A lot of what we see is a lack of understanding or ability to use the money they have," Stearns said. "A lot of the people we see can make ends meet on low income but just don't know how."

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