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Gov. Tom Corbett (AP File Photo)
by Bill Keisling
(RealReporting.org)--A few weeks back I received an interesting and thought-provoking communication from an anonymous Pennsylvania state worker.
The state employee complained about secretive efforts of Gov. Tom Corbett to privatize various state agencies, including the state lottery, the state store liquor system, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Was I aware that the Corbett administration hoped to privatize far more than these three small agencies?
“They’re talking about privatizing the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare,” I was told.
Interested parties, the tipster continued, recently “came up from Florida to tour DPW and study the potential to privatize the department.”
This communication would prove interesting for several reasons.
In 2012, the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) employed 15,931 people, according to statistics provided by the state. The only other state agency to come close to employing this number of employees is the Department of Corrections, with some 15,101 employees in 2012.
All told, there were 80,766 employees working for the state in 2012. So the Department of Public Welfare’s complement accounts for almost one in five state workers, or almost 20 percent of the state work force.
By contrast, the other agencies known to be on the auction block for privatization are much smaller.
The Pennsylvania lottery, for example, only employs about 170 people, many who may lose their jobs if the management of the lottery is turned over to private enterprise. But that’s small potatoes.
The Liquor Control Board, by contrast, employed 2,987 workers in 2012. The Pennsylvania Turnpike only had about 2,100 employees in 2012, including about 600 toll workers who may lose their jobs if plans proceed to automate the roadways toll plazas
If the Corbett administration is looking to throw as many public employees overboard as possible, DPW’s almost 16,000-person workforce is a tempting target.
The whipping boy and Jerry Sandusky
There are other philosophical and management reasons why Corbett’s Republican administration may wish to clip DPW’s wings.
PA DPW, with its massive budget (both state and federally funded), is a perennial whipping boy in Republican political campaigns for supposed “waste, fraud and abuse.”
There can be no doubt that the huge department is badly mismanaged, and is largely unaccountable.
For years, for example, PA DPW supplied kids to Jerry Sandusky and his Second Mile charity in State College. In 1998, DPW refused to properly investigate allegations that Sandusky was sexually abusing boys in his care, including foster kids provided by DPW.
There are growing calls to investigate DPW’s sprawling bureaucracy for these and other offenses against kids supposedly under the department’s care.
As the Sandusky case alone demonstrates, there’s plenty of reasons for heads to roll at DPW, with or without privatization.
What would prove particularly interesting was the tidbit from the anonymous tipster that “interested parties had come up from Florida” to study the possibility of privatizing many or all of DPW’s services
Florida, I soon learned, is at the forefront of efforts to privatize social service agencies around the country.
Florida, in fact, is only one of two states (the other being Kansas) to privatize its social services in wholesale fashion.
The movement to privatize social service agencies like PA DPW certainly has plenty of growth potential. So it’s worth a look at Florida’s efforts to privatize social services.
Studies by diverse groups, including a public service labor union and a conservative think tank, suggest reason for serious consideration.
Under privatization, the number of Florida children in foster care, for example, has dropped from 30,000 to less than 20,000, a 33 percent reduction, according to a 2012 study by the Foundation for Government Accountability, a “free market” think tank in Naples, Florida.
The Florida model
The move to privatize social services in Florida began in the 1990s, Erin Gillespie, press secretary for the Florida Department of Children and Families, tells me.
“Our foster care system was privatized by law in 1999,” Gillespie says, though it took several years to get the programs in place.
“Eighteen community-based care agencies now contract with us for things like prevention, intervention, family services, foster care, adoption, independent living, and programs for children who ‘age out’ of the system,”
“We contract with those local agencies. They’re local organizations and they’re all non-profits.”
Among the contracting agencies, she tells me, are “the Eckerd foundations and groups like Lutheran Services.”
“But we are still the department in charge,” Gillespie goes on. “We still do oversight, monitoring, licensing, and child abuse investigations, and we run the state child abuse hotline.
“We also house the firm of attorneys, as well as substance abuse and mental health services.”
As in most, if not all, states, she says, the “majority of our funding comes from the federal government.”
In 2006, she says, Florida received what’s called an “IVE Funding Waiver from the federal government. The waivers allow upfront payments so that kids won’t be disrupted or moved from a foster home, for example, for minor problems like substance abuse.”
All this, I told Gillespie, was quite interesting.
But what about Pennsylvania?
I explain that I’d heard that social service privatization experts perhaps had traveled from Florida to study Pennsylvania’s Department of Pubic Welfare. Had someone from her department traveled to Pennsylvania, perhaps to consult? I asked.
“Our budget is so small that I doubt it,” Gillespie tells me. “I would imagine that Pennsylvania officials would come here.”
Well then, had someone from Pennsylvania state government visited her department? I asked.
Not that she was aware of, she said.
Gillespie told me she would contact the office of her boss, David Wilkins, the secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families. Perhaps Wilkins’ office might know of contacts with Pennsylvania officials, she suggested.