THE TOP priority of the state's social service office should be to help struggling people to find and keep jobs, not to heap more headaches — and debts — on them.Yet that's what appears to have happened with the state's Wheels to Work program, administered by the state Department of Health and Human Resources.DHHR used federal welfare money to address a very real need among working poor people and people who aspire to work — the need for transportation. The state contracted four nonprofit groups to obtain and distribute used cars to people in need.But as reporters Eric Eyre and Scott Finn discovered, the state did not properly oversee the operation, and now working poor families are burdened with additional debts, job loss and discouragement.One program, operated by Community Action of South Eastern West Virginia, favored a local used car dealer. The government bought cars at retail prices, then sold them back to the dealer for less.Another program, operated by the AFL-CIO's Human Resource Development Foundation, repossessed a third of the cars it distributed, the worst record of any of the contractors.
Cars broke down, caught fire and were in poor repair. One vehicle may have even caused the serious injuries of a 5-year-old child in South Charleston. Her mother remembers stepping on the brake, but her Chevy van went sailing through a red light at the bottom of a hill anyway.Surely someone in this state is competent to manage such a worthwhile program. It appears that a third contractor, Good News Mountaineer Garage, may be such a group. That organization has a cleaner record of accepting donated cars, fixing them and distributing them to people who are trying to work their way out of welfare.But when it came time to re-evaluate the contracts, the state chose not to do business with that group. Instead, the state awarded an exclusive contract to the Human Resources Development Foundation, despite its record.DHHR did not even bother to examine the differences in the records before awarding the contract. Now lawmakers have asked for a review of the bidding process, and well they should. This is the kind of mismanagement that costs public trust.Unfortunately, working poor parents and their children paid the price. They lost money and jobs. Some continue to make payments on vehicles they cannot drive, while ticking off months toward their lifetime limit of welfare benefits.It would be easy for the Legislature, DHHR and the public to chuck the whole complicated effort as too expensive and too susceptible to fraud and bad press. That would be a shame. It would also be another foolish waste of time and effort.Many of the state's willing workers live in areas where there is little or no public transportation. Getting around is a necessary fact of being employed in this state. It should not be more than the state can manage to provide this help to its poorest workers.