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Springfield News-Leader Oct. 26, 2014

Oct. 26, 2014, 6 a.m. · 0 comments

Rollins: Tracking aid to the poor could change cynical minds

by Jess Rollins, 6 a.m. CDT October 26, 2014

Springfield, Missouri

Are poor people in Springfield just lazy?

Could they get a decent paying job but choose not to?

Are they taking advantage of welfare programs and charities — cashing in on the generosity and taxation of hard-working folks?

On these questions, a lot of people have already made up their minds.

But what if, on a case-by-case basis, there was a way to know what services each poor person in the city received?

What if the ones who needed help could get it?

What if so-called freeloaders wouldn't be able to game the system?

No need for the "what ifs." Such a tracking program exists and is being used, in a limited way, among some local charities. It's called Charity Tracker. For the few food pantries in the city that use it, the system creates a profile of each person or family that receives local services.

The profile can include a full account of services received by an individual, including participation in federal programs like food stamps.

The profile is shared in real time with other agencies on the network.

Mary Zumwalt, of Ozarks Food Harvest, the food bank that administrates the program, said it has been in use about a year. But only 19 charities spread throughout 28 counties have signed on. Only six of those are in Greene County.

The $15 monthly fee and equipment needed — a computer with Internet — have been obstacles for the charities that might like to participate.

Zumwalt said the program helps the charities coordinate and keep from duplicating services.

"What we are really wanting the program to do is make each other aware of the services they provide and to help the clients," Zumwalt said.

"It is a really great tool for everyone to work together and not drain each others' resources."

Zumwalt told me the system isn't really meant to catch fraud — mostly because the occurrence of it is actually very low — but it can.

And this, in a cold and calculating way, is valuable.

The ability to tell a cynical community that only the needy — and no one else — is getting help, could help change the conversation when talking about the plight of the poor.

The Springfield poverty commission, a group of business, government and community leaders working on a plan to help lift the city's poor out of poverty, could gain some much-needed community support if the commission members push for this system to be more widely used.

There is another benefit to the program that could aid the commission's work. The system would allow observers to track a poverty-stricken family's progress.

A caseworker could help chart a course for poor individuals and monitor their progress toward getting on their feet.

Each success story could provide a blueprint, an inspiration to others and a scorecard for the efficacy of the city's programs.

I agree, fighting fraud that doesn't really exist is a silly goal.

But if doing so reassures a community that is sometimes hostile toward the poor, the investment would be worth it.

Here's a link to the original article.

Categories: Press

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