By now, the news that Indiana's Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) doesn't work well isn't news at all.
It's a familiar tale. Mistakes at FSSA pile up to the point where even the governor has to pay attention, then reforms are promised and enacted. Then you hope there's a lengthy period of time before the cycle starts up again.
I am here to tell you that the new descent into chaos has already begun.
An individual I represent has been told by FSSA that he owes the state more than $6,000 in overpaid food stamp benefits over the past four years.
Upon further investigation, it turns out that this was all one big mistake by FSSA, one of those "agency errors" you hear about. Doesn't matter, though. The individual must pay that money back, and since he lives on a fixed income, it will just be taken from his monthly benefits — which means he'll have less money to spend on minor things like food.
Again, this was a mistake made by the state, not this gentleman. He must pay for their screw-up.
And he's lucky, if you can believe that. Many others owe hundreds or even thousands of dollars back to the state under similar circumstances. They only have the money they earn through a limited income to help repay the agency's mistake. If they receive other public benefits, such as Social Security or Social Security Disability, the state has the ability to garnish these wages, no matter how limited.
We've asked the FSSA what it plans to do about this. After several months of dithering, officials told us two things.
First of all, it's the federal government's fault. Unfortunately for FSSA, federal rules do give the state some leeway to act like decent human beings — they could adjust, reduce or forgive the overpayment without any penalties.
Then the state told us that the FSSA has no policy to cover this situation — but don't worry, they'll come up with one by the end of the year.
While they diddle around and conduct a bunch of meetings to figure out the right thing to do, this gentleman will have his monthly benefit reduced from $16 to $6 to cover what is owed.
Once again, the incident I just recited isn't isolated. With more than 900,000 people in Indiana receiving SNAP benefits, it is not an infrequent occurrence to see agency errors put people at risk. Our state's error rate is 5 percent, higher than the national average. That translates to 45,000 Hoosiers affected by FSSA errors.
What should bother everyone is the nagging sense that this agency (or the administration that runs it) doesn't care whether there was an agency error involved. It doesn't matter that these folks live in poverty and need assistance to get food and health care or that they are disabled and need services and support.
You see, those folks who rely upon the social services network to help keep their heads above water don't have powerful lobbyists working for them at the Statehouse, so it gets pretty easy to ignore them or cast them aside or use them as the guinea pigs in some grand experiment to show that the private sector knows how to handle government services the best. The "benefits" of that effort were proven in the state's failed food stamp partnership with IBM, which is costing the taxpayers of Indiana millions of dollars.
As a result, we usually have to wait until things get really awful before the administration decides that the bad PR means they must show they care — for a little while, at least. This is just the current problem I'm dealing with from FSSA; there is repeatedly an issue through one department or another.
But crisis management is not the answer for what ails FSSA. Caring about the agency's mission and doing something about it would be a good place to start.
I had a fascinating conversation with a young man about the two national conventions. This college student described the two gatherings in Cleveland and Philadelphia accurately, but viewed through the eyes of someone really paying attention for the first time.
He described the differences between the campaigns as "being like high school." It seems to him that the issues at hand have been reduced to a low-quality popularity contest where the debate among voters is almost exclusively cosmetic and void of substance.
The description he gave of the conventions was generically just like mine: The Republicans seem scared and angry, and the Democrats seem full of hope.
He didn't say who was getting his vote, but he did say who is scarier to him.
I remember my first presidential election. It was then Vice President George H.W. Bush versus then Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988. I also remember two things President Bush said during that campaign. The first one was "read my lips, no new taxes." I didn't have any money back then so this bit was no sales pitch directed at me.
But the second one came from his speech at the RNC when he accepted his party's nomination. He said, "There is such a thing as reliable love. Some would say it is soft or insufficiently tough to care about these things. But where is it written that we must act as if we do not care, as if we are not moved? Well I am moved. I want a kinder, gentler nation."
Whoa. I didn't vote for him. But I see him differently now than I did back then. He didn't need my vote, though that first presidential vote of mine is the only one I have cast that may have been wrong for me.
Things were easier for me and my pals back then. We weren't arguing about what was in the latest email scandal, for an obvious reason. We also weren't pondering whether or not it was ok to admire the "leader" of Russia. In 1988, that treasonous act would have easily disqualified any candidate.
That year, I was a senior in college and wasn't sure how I was going to pay the final bills. President Reagan had inconveniently "reformed" the college financial aid structure during his tenure, and his V.P. suffered the consequences with me when I voted.
Neither candidate scared me though. Neither of them hid from who they were or what Americans should expect from their presidency. Gov. Dukakis proudly acknowledged his membership in the American Civil Liberties Union, and proclaimed he was a "liberal," going on to say it shouldn't be a dirty word.
This is the America I know. I will always compare the politics of today to the politics I first learned. Most of us will. I am not one of those people who miss the good old days very often, but this election season is one of those times.
What will the young people of today miss? They won't think of the first woman nominee or president the way my generation does. An African-American president is already normal to them. And these are things that make today so much better than yesterday.
But unless some things are soundly rejected this year, the normalcy of them could take hold. The Hillary Clinton campaign commercial titled "your children are watching" had a profound effect on me. Not just because it blasts the candidate least suitable to serve, but it puts into perspective what the American public has allowed to become acceptable of a presidential nominee.
To my Republican friends who once knew better than to support the fledgling fascist their party just nominated: Losing this year is not the worst thing that can happen. The worst thing would be that your guy wins, and that performances like his become status quo. Smart Republicans know this much.
More importantly to me today though is that the young man I mentioned happens to be my son. I am happy he doesn't think the political success of Obama or Clinton is odd. That actually is progress.
I hope his memory of this election is the clear rejection of its tone. And our first time voters need to look back on this election proudly because it was the last election like this, instead of the first.
Son, meet America. You two have plenty to talk about.