public policy

Study: R.I. social safety net ill-managed

Posted 8/20/09

PROVIDENCE - Rhode Island’s social safety net is expensive and splintered, according to a report released jointly today by United Way of Rhode Island and the R.I. Public Expenditure Council.

The 58-page report details federal and state programs that provide assistance to the state’s poor, unemployed and disabled residents. It comes as the state’s economy continues to struggle and state agencies deal with an influx of residents seeking social services.

The report found that 46 percent of all spending in this year’s enacted state budget flows to grants and benefits for programs such as Medicaid, medical assistance programs, child care subsidies and unemployment benefits.

The advisory group formed by the two organizations to compile the report also criticized state agencies for delivering programs through a convoluted network of departments that often require redundant and complex forms.

“The current social safety net has evolved incrementally over time and there does not appear to be a cohesive vision for what society is trying to accomplish with these social safety net programs,” the report says. “Therefore, the advisory group felt it would be important to improve accountability for how government funds are spent for these purposes.”

The report suggests establishing a permanent commission of lawmakers, state department heads and community representatives to oversee the safety net programs. It also suggests changing regulations to gradually wean people off services, rather than cutting them loose when they reach an arbitrary income level.

In an interview this week, United Way President and CEO Anthony Maione acknowledged the task of streamlining a massive government bureaucracy posed a major challenge, but argued now is the time when doing so is most needed. He said he hopes the report encourages lawmakers and departments to take a look at their processes.

“We really see this as a jumping in point,” he said. “There’s so much emotion around human services in every state around the country, we really wanted to shed some light without adding to the heat.”

The report attempts to quantify how many people rely on the state’s social services. The report says about 10.8 percent of Rhode Islanders lacked health insurance in 2007. Although that was below the national average of 15.3 percent, the report says the percentage of uninsured people grew more quickly in Rhode Island than nationally from 2002 to 2007.

During roughly the same time, from 2000 to 2008, Medicaid enrollment jumped from about 146,000 enrollees to 181,000 enrollees. Spending increases followed. Between 2000 and 2009, total combined federal and state Medicaid expenditures for the state of Rhode Island rose by 65.1 percent, from $1.1 billion to about $1.8 billion.

Rhode Island also experienced a 4.1 percent increase in uninsured children between 2002 and 2007. That was more than twice the pace in New Hampshire and 0.4 percent more than in Vermont, the report said.

The report notes that the sobering data comes as the state has the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation, the highest number of foreclosures in New England and a lack of affordable housing.

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