Right for the job:The welfare secretary wants a responsive agency

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Beverly Mackereth's background as a caseworker, supervisor, administrator and state lawmaker means she understands, from the ground up, the complicated Pennsylvania Welfare Department that she now leads.

Early reviews of her performance -- in March she became acting secretary, replacing the controversial Gary Alexander, and the Senate confirmed her as secretary by a unanimous vote in June -- have been positive. Last Wednesday in Pittsburgh, Ms. Mackereth demonstrated her willingness to listen to tough criticism when she appeared at a meeting called by Just Harvest, which released the results of a damning survey.

The anti-hunger advocacy nonprofit said consumers frequently call its offices when they are having difficulty accessing the state-administered Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and it was concerned about what the food stamp recipients were saying. Volunteers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work surveyed 150 clients and made a series of test calls to both the department's Customer Help lines and to assistance offices in Allegheny County. What they found was troubling.

Among survey participants, 30 percent said that glitches with their paperwork led to interruptions in benefits to which they were entitled, and 20 percent were advised that documents they submitted could not be found. Clients said they had problems reaching caseworkers by phone because their message mailboxes were full, they experienced wait times of more than an hour on numerous phone calls and two thirds of them experienced having calls disconnected. Test calls generated similarly dismal results.

Ms. Mackereth didn't like what she heard, and she pledged to do better.

In a meeting with Post-Gazette staff members after the Just Harvest meeting, she said mistakes are bound to occur in a department with 17,000 employees, but she said there is no excuse for clients to be treated with anything but respect and, when problems occur, the department must figure out what went wrong and how to fix them.

That is the right response, and tackling systemic problems like the ones laid out by Just Harvest is a fundamental role for the welfare secretary, whose departmental budget of $28 billion includes administering medical, nutrition, home heating and other assistance for low-income families as well as child welfare services.

So far, Ms. Mackereth has shown herself to be right for the job.

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