The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

February 16, 2013

JOHN FINNERTY | New welfare boss understands challenges


HARRISBURG — Beverly Mackereth started work on Saturday as acting director of the Department of Public Welfare, following the resignation of former Welfare Secretary Gary Alexander.

Alexander departs after having never really moved to Pennsylvania and having overseen such ill-fated “reforms” as the suggestion that welfare recipients pass an asset test to make sure they were really poor.

In that context, Mackereth’s comments to a House Children and Youth Committee last week were encouraging in that they demonstrate a more nuanced view than it seemed Alexander ever brought to the job.

Mackereth said that the biggest challenge is often that parents simply don’t know how to parent. But that sometimes there are other issues that come into play as well.

As the state seeks to encourage counties to develop reunification plans that are realistic, she said, there are times when the plan will include questions about the work status of the parents or whether the family has stable housing.

Mackereth said that while it is certainly important that parents work when possible, the state’s response ought to explore how to put parents in a position to successfully care for their children rather than warehouse the youngsters in foster care.

Mackereth was testifying before the committee in an attempt to describe the challenges facing the child protection system as the Legislature begins to grapple with how to adjust policy to improve matters.

“Child behavioral problems” are the most common reasons children land in foster care in Pennsylvania, she said. In almost half the cases, those children are older than 13.

“Should the government be parenting teenagers?” she asked. “We are.”

That effort is impeded by the fact that often, poorly-paid caseworkers fresh out of college represent the front line of child protection.

“In some counties (caseworkers) can qualify for food stamps,” Mackereth said. “They don’t have the experience to know what they are looking at.”

The first response of parents who are approached by a young caseworker is often: “Who do you think you are? And do you even have kids?”

The bottom line is that in many cases, removing the child is easier than working with parents to make the home appropriate for the child. But the easiest course is not necessarily the best one.

Around Harrisburg

n At a Senate Transportation Committee hearing, Penn-DOT Secretary Barry Schoch, in response to a question by Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont, said rural areas tend to be “net-receivers” in terms of transportation dollars.

What does that mean?

There are not enough cars traveling on rural roads to generate the gas tax revenue needed to maintain those roads.

Schoch estimated that on a road that carries 2,000 vehicles a day, the costs may outweigh what those drivers pay in gas tax by a ratio of 5-to-1.

Schoch also offered an ominous warning that as cars become more fuel efficient, the state is going to have to explore ways to get revenue other than from gasoline taxes.

That would probably involve more wide use of fees based on the amount of miles traveled by vehicles, rather than how much fuel the vehicles consume.

You know what they say about death and taxes.

n On Wednesday, State Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Johnstown, who used to be a deputy attorney general, warned that he believed there was sufficient legal justification for Attorney General Kathleen Kane to reject a deal to privatize the lottery. On Thursday, the day Barbin’s comments appeared in the newspaper, Kane did just that.

Good call, Rep. Barbin.

John Finnerty is the Harrisburg Bureau reporter for Community Newspapers Holding, Inc. He can be reached by email at Follow him on Twitter at: @cnhipa.

To read stories in their entirety, visit one of these links:

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.