Estelle Richman joins Obama administration

    Estelle Richman is heading to Washington. After leading the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare for seven years, next week Richman starts a new job as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Chief Operating Officer.

    Estelle Richman is heading to Washington. After leading the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare for seven years, next week Richman starts a new job as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Chief Operating Officer. Estelle Richman talks about her old job, her new job, and lessons she learned from her grandmother.

    Listen:
    [audio: 100105lfwelfare.mp3]

    Governor Ed Rendell has praised Estelle Richman’s work at the Department of Public Welfare. And she agrees there are things she did well.

    Richman: I think I’ve been able to keep a focus on consumers and to make sure we understand that these are people whose lives we have a great deal of input into whether it’s their medical care, whether it’s their living arrangements. I think I also brought to the Department an ability to integrate services. In other words to make sure that the seven – and there are seven different programmatic areas – work together and understand that our clients may cross more than one of our programs and to be able to see it as a whole rather than separate independent silos.

    Richman also admits that during her time at the Department of Public Welfare, she had plenty of disappointments and there are things she wish had gone differently.

    Richman: My disappointments are in things where we had not been able to meet some of the challenges of people who were just plain in need. The Cash Assistance Amount that Pennsylvania gives to poor people who are dependent on the system for their cash, the Cash Assistance Amount has remained the same for the last 25 years. Just think if you lived for 25 years with no change in your income – what that would be like in terms of today’s inflation. My other desires would have been to close another state hospital. We know that people live better, more cost-effectively when they live in the community.

    As Richman heads off to tackle her new job as COO for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, she’s already got a lot of plans and expectations.

    Richman: Probably the biggest thing I’m looking forward to in Washington, I will no longer be the person where the buck stops. And that has a certain amount of attractiveness as opposed to being here over the last seven years and being the target! As I’ve talked to the Secretary part of what he wants me to do is to be an integrator. He’s read that I have been able to get groups that are in silos to work together, to get people who have been established in traditional systems to be able to transition and get excited about new systems.

    As eager as Richman is to talk about her work, she’s also more than willing to open up about her childhood as an African American girl in Virginia.

    Richman: I think it has shaped my entire life. My father was a doctor, my mother was a college-level teacher. But the fact that my family, as an African American family, pretty much had everything we needed didn’t protect us from being totally segregated, or totally discriminated against, or totally treated as second-class citizens. People who really grew up in the South during segregation, poor faced a life much worse than ours.  And I saw that. I saw the difference when I went out with my father – the difference between my life and everybody else’s life. And it was pretty profound. And I think part of what I learned is I had an obligation to give back. So when I’m here and hear consumers, I have to listen to their voice. I fought to get my voice heard as a black person. I need to fight to have their voice heard as a person with disability… My grandmother lived to be 102, 109, I’m sorry, 109. She lived independently until she was 105. And the biggest thing she taught all of us – and I think all six of her grandchildren would basically say the same thing – and it was that you owe it to help someone else out of poverty when you get out yourself. And when you’ve never been in, then your obligation is double.

    More from WHYY
    Listen to the full uncut version of the interview with Estelle Richman:
    [audio: 100105lfwelfarefull.mp3]

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