Kimberly Reeves has a nice article in this week's Press about the upcoming privatization of many Texas Health and Human Services Commission functions. Did you know that a fundamental aspect of the privatization plan is to outsource a bunch of work to volunteer charities? That was news to me.
Suzii Paynter and her small band of intrepid, faith-based foot soldiers recently found themselves trouping down to the basement of Christian Life Commission in Austin for an unusual experiment of sorts.
Most of her crew were longtime retirees who had helped the needy and helped the state in the past. They were First Baptist "regulars" who volunteered their time at the downtown homeless shelter. Paynter, public policy director of the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, had several co-workers along.
They were committed to providing more assistance in what has been touted as a major overhaul of the welfare system in Texas.
Then they found out just how much of the load they were projected to shoulder to make this new system as success: one million volunteer hours of work every year, much of it in tedious chores like entering data into state computers.
"We were a significant part of the plan, yet no one had held a forum or sent out a letter or recruited a round table or asked for an advisory committee," says Paynter. "There had been no outreach about this plan whatsoever to say we were written into this role, and certainly no money for it."
Stephanie Goodman, spokesperson for the human services commission, argues that the million-hour volunteer component was an estimate of the time already spent by nonprofits in assisting the process of helping the needy obtain benefits.
That time can account for simply referring a client to a phone to make a call to the state's call centers, she says. If that's the case, they've got a lot of community groups fooled. They are mobilizing to figure out their role in the process.
Joe Rubio of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston Catholic Charities is already talking about additional training and liability needed for his own volunteers. Basically, the nonprofits have advised and assisted the needy who look to them for help, but they hardly embrace the idea of taking over the bureaucratic work of state agencies.
Rubio says this new role for religious groups -- replacing government, rather than assisting -- is slowly eroding the effectiveness of faith-based organizations.
Some leaders of nonprofits say it's one thing for government to embrace the faith-based community. It's another thing to balance the budget on the backs of volunteer groups and the poor in the process.
"It's missing a certain spirit, a caring spirit, that we're going to make it better to serve people better," says Rubio. "I just see us trying to cut back on government by exposing the vulnerable to more risk than they're taking already."
According to the business plan, faith-based and community-based organizations would handle the initial application process for up to one-fourth of the needy seeking welfare.
The business plan expects all enrollment and screening -- that is, the work not done by faith-based and community-based groups -- to be done over the phone or online. Paynter can already feel the tug of desperate non-English-speaking hands on her sleeve, given that the average call-center call is estimated to last only seven minutes.
Paynter says, "When you talk about the initial stage of the application, any kind of face-to-face meeting is going to happen with these community organizations."