MILFORD — While demand for welfare in many towns has either stayed level or gone down in the last year, there’s an increasing need for social services dollars as agencies continue to struggle with reductions in state spending.
Town welfare departments provide emergency assistance to those who have explored other options and can’t find money for things like utilities, rent, prescriptions and food. By state law, towns are required to offer emergency welfare assistance to their residents, said Susan Drew, director of welfare for the town of Milford.
“The town is the last resort when people need assistance,” Drew said, but the office also serves to point those in need toward state, federal and local programs where they can find long-term assistance if necessary.
Drew said that demand for welfare seems to be on the decline as the economy in Milford starts to show improvement.
“We have a 4.6 percent unemployment rate. People are finding more work, so that’s good news,” she said.
The town’s welfare line has been reduced by 8.7 percent in the proposed operating budget from $132,570 to $120,013 as a reflection of the actual amount spent by the department.
In Laconia, Finance Director Donna Woodman said demand for welfare is down slightly over last year, and in Sunapee, the demand has remained about the same, said Welfare Administrator Laura Trow. The Hudson Board of Selectmen has trimmed the welfare budget by $25,000 because demand has steadily decreased over the last three years, said Town Administrator Steve Malizia.
But for the disabled, the elderly, the addicted, and the mentally ill, a strengthening economy doesn’t improve their situations. To help those folks, social service agencies, including Meals on Wheels, homeless shelters, drug treatment centers, and other regional programs have been established.
Many of these programs are funded in part by state and federal dollars, but towns chip in as well, said Naomi Bolton, town administrator for Weare.
“Though the demand for welfare has stayed about the same,” Bolton said, “the request for donations for these organizations has increased.”
Weare has increased its donation to these agencies by $4,000 in the proposed operating budget, said Bolton. And though the Milford Board of Selectmen attempted to cut $5,000 from the social services line in its proposed warrant, at last Saturday’s deliberative session, voters put that money back in.
“People understand that it’s much more cost effective to help these agencies help our residents than to try to do it on our own,” said Drew.
Todd Marsh, welfare director in Rochester, said his department tries to work with clients to get to the root causes of their emergencies so that they can solve long-term problems and reduce the number of folks who have to repeatedly seek assistance. Efforts such as helping people learn how to stand out among the piles of applications employers receive can make a difference between employment and unemployment for some.
But those efforts, and the work of social service agencies, have been hamstrung by cuts to social services on the state level, Marsh said.
“Cost-cutting measures at state Health and Human Services ultimately affect local welfare departments from the North Country to the Seacoast; all across the state,” Marsh said. “Decisions often have unintended negative consequences, one of which is cost shifting to municipalities.”