Public Policy Forum Blog

Questions we need to ask after the Coggs Center incident

In the wake of Monday's unfortunate events at the County's Marcia P. Coggs Human Services Center - in which a huge crowd seeking emergency food stamp benefits became dangerous and unruly - it was inevitable that we would see those from both the right and the left using the situation to buttress their longstanding beliefs. As a former county health and human services director, I would like to offer my own observations:

  • This incident should serve as a wake-up call to state and county elected officials regarding the dysfunctional nature of the state-county relationship when it comes to human services. The two entities are supposed to be partners, but seldom act that way. In this case, the state gave the county little notice before announcing the new benefit, despite knowing full well that the county can't adequately handle its existing food stamp caseload, let alone a surge of thousands of new applications. In the rush to announce the availability of the benefit, did the state genuinely try to coordinate, to jointly plan, or to say "hey, can we give you a hand?"
  • Citizens and policymakers need to be aware that each and every day, hundreds of desperate people face significant challenges signing up for benefits at the Coggs Center. For years, Milwaukee County has experienced big problems in serving the tens of thousands of residents seeking eligibility determination for food stamps, Medicaid and child care. As a result, benefits regularly are delayed for those who are eligible, and the challenges involved in obtaining them often jeopardize both health and employability. Both the state and the county have known and admitted this, but neither accepts accountability; instead, the state blames the county for not administering the programs effectively, while the county blames the state for grossly underfunding a mandated service. Meanwhile, the problem never gets fixed.
  • It is certainly legitimate to question why the emergency benefit was made available by the federal government and/or the state to anyone who met income and residency criteria, regardless of ability to prove hardship due to flood damage. The answer likely lies in the desire to err on the side of quickly getting food assistance into the hands of those who truly needed it, as opposed to preventing fraud. Nevertheless, despite the probable good intentions of those making this decision, it is unfortunate that the impression left with the public is that all food stamp benefits are similarly easy to obtain by those who may not be eligible, and that further anecdotal ammunition has been provided to those who argue that safety net programs are wasteful and unnecessary.
  • In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, planning was initiated on the state and local level for emergency situations in which thousands of uprooted and otherwise desperate people would need to seek and obtain critical food and health care benefits. Does this incident tell us we are not prepared for a true natural disaster in this essential area of emergency response? Should we be questioning whether we would have similar challenges providing mental health, drug/alcohol and disabilities services in a true emergency?

Perhaps the worst outcome of this week's Coggs Center incident would be its casual dismissal. Instead, this incident must be viewed as a potential symptom of a much larger problem - an overwhelmed social services infrastructure in Milwaukee County that is badly in need of apolitical attention from both state and county policymakers.

Rob Henken