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Funds vs. Need

When a Proctorville woman went earlier this month to apply for food stamps and medical assistance, she was nervous and worried.

Her husband had just been diagnosed with a heart aneurism. The husband had been a heavy equipment operator but needed a physical examination to get a job as a truck driver. The aneurism showed up and turned their lives upside down.

The man who used to work for a living can’t be a truck driver or an equipment operator, at least for a while.

“We have no regular income and no health insurance,” she said.

The husband will have surgery this week and will spend 6-8 weeks after that recuperating. Fortunately, doctors say the man can return to either job once he is well. But in the meantime, the couple has asked for a little help.

They’ve applied for food stamps and medical assistance for them and their four-year-old daughter.

The woman said her experience at Lawrence County Job and Family Services was a positive one and she was treated with utmost compassion and respect by intake case manager Lisa Massie.

“When someone who has no idea what you’re going through helps you…” she said, choking back tears. “You just don’t expect that these days, I feel blessed.”

But Massie is worried. She is seeing more people coming in the door seeking assistance and fewer and fewer co-workers to help shoulder the ever-increasing load of providing this assistance. She worries in the future, those who come in looking for help may have to wait long hours to get the help they need. Her supervisor, Lawrence County Job and Family Services Director Gene Myers, is worried, too.

Facts and figures

The JFS office already serves nearly 32 percent of all Lawrence County residents in some fashion, be it child care, food stamps or general assistance. On the average, JFS employees assist 175 clients per day.

“We open the doors at 7:30 and I have employees who are here at 7, 7:15 and I am usually here at 7 or 7:15 and I’m here until 5 and when I come in there are already clients on the parking lot and when I leave there are clients waiting to see workers at 5 o’clock,” Myers said.

Children’s Services, which is under the umbrella of JFS, handles between 2,100 and 2,200 referrals each year. While not all of these referrals become a full-fledged child abuse or neglect case, each and every one of them must be investigated.

And if this sounds bad, consider that statewide, the jobless rate is on the rise and is now 8.8 percent. While Lawrence County’s is relatively low right now, that is likely to change as the effects of the national economy make its way here. Statewide the demand for food stamps has grown by more than 10 percent.

Cutting

To counter the effects of a worsening economy, federal and state officials are allowing more people to sign up for public assistance.

Medicaid eligibility is being expanded from 200 percent of the poverty level to 300 percent.

Food stamp eligibility is being expanded as well.

However, the state is not providing money to local agencies to administrate those programs.

So more people are coming in through his door to ask for help at a time when Myers has fewer and fewer people to actually provide that help.

In 2003 JFS has 130 employees. It now has 95.

In the last year seven people who retired or otherwise chose to leave JFS employment have not been replaced.

“I am concerned about the clients we serve,” Myers said. “We serve people who are already the most vulnerable residents of Lawrence County and they may be struggling even more.”

The state is proposing to cut his Title 20 Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) by $725,241 and other funding streams by more than $300,000.

This is on top of the $2.2 million hit his office has taken since 2007.

This is the money that is used to provide foster care, temporary shelter and basic needs such as food and clothing.

If the state cuts his budget again this year, he will have seen a 1/3 reduction in his budget over the last three years.

Trends

Massie said the Proctorville woman is not an isolated case. She is starting to see more people who have never asked for help before, never needed help before, show up at the JFS office.

These are start-from-scratch people who require more time with a caseworker to get necessary information.

Massie said she has another concern, too. Budget cuts often mean personnel cuts.

“There is a very real possibility I could be on the other side of this desk,” she said.