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Welfare reform


Vivian Hain calls the 1996 reform of the welfare system “welfare deform.” In her experience with receiving welfare in Alameda County, Calif., she said she has contended with unhelpful, hard-to-reach caseworkers, been discouraged from educational opportunities and has received inadequate assistance for expenses such as child care and transportation, while being pushed into the job market at wages that fall below subsistence level.

“We want a fresh start so eventually we don’t have to rely on the county,” Hain, 35, said. “But how can you ever leave welfare if they continue to knock you back?”

But Patricia Capell in Kansas City, Mo., had high praise for the changes brought about by the 1996 reform law. “Before they were just helping you stay on welfare,” she said. “You couldn’t go to a job interview there was no one to watch the kids and no way to get there.”

Now she receives assistance for both transportation and childcare. Through Missouri’s Futures program, she received both job training and job placement classes. “You learn to become dependent on yourself, so you no longer need welfare,” said Capell, 30.

Meanwhile, both women rely on charitable agencies to help feed their families. Hain takes her two daughters to the Alameda County Community Food Bank, while Capell spoke to NCR as she waited for groceries at a food pantry run by the Bishop Sullivan Center, supported by the Catholic diocese.

The two women’s stories illustrate the strengths and weaknesses that observers see in the welfare system since Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Most agreed that the old system fostered welfare dependence and needed changing. Within five years of passage of reform, the number of families on the rolls was halved. But critics of welfare reform say that caseload reduction is not enough poverty reduction for families both on and off the welfare rolls needs to be made a goal.

The stories also illustrate that while welfare reform was supposed to have streamlined the system, it remains a tangle of rules and regulations, varying from state to state and sometimes from county to county. In the end, there is little that is simple about welfare reform.

“The [1996] welfare law was at best designed for a time of prosperity,” said Peter Edelman, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. “It’s deeply flawed even in that context, but it is totally inadequate for a time of recession.”

Meanwhile, some proponents of the 1996 legislation promote a tightening of work requirements and deplore that states have neglected the welfare reform law’s goal of strengthening marriage and families.

Lobbyists on both sides will bring these concerns to the debate this year as Congress prepares to reauthorize the law, which expires Sept. 30.

Drop in caseload

The welfare caseload declined from 4.4 million families in 1996 to 2.2 million in 2000. To those who might credit the decline to a robust economy, supporters of reform point out that during a similar period of economic growth in the 1980s, welfare rolls remained stagnant.

Supporters of the welfare law also note that based on the government’s definition of poverty an income below $14,600 for a family of three or $17,000 for a family of four the poverty rate has also fallen. In addition, according to Census Bureau figures, child poverty fell every year from 1995-99. Black child poverty, at 33.1 percent in 1999, is at its lowest since the census began measuring it in 1974.

However, the drop in the poverty rate has not been as dramatic as the drop in the welfare rolls. Those who have left the rolls “we’re finding in soup kitchens and shelters,” said Sister of St. Joseph Mary Elizabeth Clark of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby. “They’re not making a living wage. They’re not in a situation where their health care needs are met. They’re trying to save on food so they can pay child care.”

For those still on welfare, legislation that was passed in times of plenty imposed a federal five-year lifetime limit on benefits. Some states set an even shorter period of time for people to receive benefits from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the federal block grants to the states that replaced the pre-1996 Aid to Families With Dependent Children. Now, Temporary Assistance recipients are hitting those limits as the economy slips into recession. The program, best known by its initials, TANF, is referred to in bureaucratic circles as “Tanif.”

Some activists feared that reduced welfare caseloads would be used as a reason to decrease funding for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. But in the current recession, that has not been proposed. The Bush administration’s 2003 budget calls for Congress to maintain state grants at $16.7 billion per year. House Democrats have proposed an increase to at least $20 billion over the next five years.

TANF funding needs to be at least the same as that provided in the 1996 law, Clark said. NETWORK supports an increase in funding. “People still left on the rolls need even more attention in their situation,” she said.

Lobbying for the poor

To prepare for reauthorization of welfare reform, NETWORK began a campaign in October called “Making a Noise about the Need,” designed to train activists to lobby for the interests of poor people. Twenty-one daylong workshops will be offered through May in 16 states.

An important key to poverty reduction, many analysts say, is supports for working families to raise them out of poverty. These “work supports” can include programs separate from TANF, such as food stamps, Medicaid and the State Child Health Insurance Program, and the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. Furthermore, states’ unused funds from the federal block grants for TANF can be used for programs for needy working families, including assistance with childcare, transportation and housing costs. Another support known as “work disregards” considers only a portion of the family’s income when determining eligibility for cash assistance.

Work supports may have the best chance of finding a positive reception with Congress and with the public, said Ron Haskins, guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and a former Republican staff member of the House Ways and Means Committee. “The politics of helping working families is potentially much more popular than the politics of welfare,” he said. Until recently, Haskins served as co-director of the Brookings Welfare Reform & Beyond initiative. In February, he took on a temporary position as senior adviser for welfare policy at the White House.

The availability of work supports varies from state to state, and in some states, from county to county.

“There are so many states that aren’t doing much to help people find jobs and keep jobs once they have them,” Edelman said. “Often a state will have a small initiative in some area a little transportation assistance, or a little child care. But that initiative may not be very consequential in the context of the states’ overall policy.”

More than welfare needed

Whether a person gets out of poverty is determined by more than simply welfare. The minimum wage, food stamps, health coverage and unemployment compensation are part of a long list of policies that affect whether people can make ends meet which requires a minimum income “at a higher level than what we call the poverty level,” Edelman added.

According to the Brookings Institution, fewer than half of mothers who leave welfare for work are receiving food stamps, even though they remain eligible. “As many as 60 percent, according to one good study, do not get them even though they are qualified,” Haskins told NCR. “To some extent the same is true of Medicaid. There was a drop in eligible families receiving it, but there has been some recovery there.”

Clark said that more outreach is necessary to inform people who have left the welfare rolls that they are still entitled to food stamps and Medicaid, and better training is needed for TANF caseworkers. “In some cases, the caseworkers were not clear and people were being misinformed,” she said. “They were going away from the TANF office with the understanding that they were cut off from all public assistance.”

Catholic Charities USA has recommended in testimony to Congress that families leaving welfare should automatically continue to receive food stamps and Medicaid without any further paperwork. “Even if they know they are still eligible, to reapply they have to go down and spend all day at the welfare office filling out 14-page forms for food stamps and 24 pages for Medicaid,” said Sharon Daly, vice president for social policy for Catholic Charities USA. “It might actually take two full days. Many states require reapplication every three months, others every six months. In that critical first year when parents are working, other benefits ought to be provided automatically, so the parent doesn’t have to take time off work” not only losing hourly wages but possibly losing the job.

On Jan. 9, the Bush administration proposed the restoration of food stamp benefits for legal immigrants who have lived in the United States for five years, reversing a provision of the 1996 welfare law that was vehemently opposed by many activists.

Robert Rector, senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, is in favor of work supports such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. However, he maintains that the key to helping the working poor is to strengthen work requirements. “It’s very misleading to say that people are working hard but are still poor,” he told NCR. The average hours worked reported by the working poor, he said, is close to 1,000 hours a year about half of the year. “The reality is that the working poor are poor because they’re not working much,” Rector said. “Strengthen the work requirement in the welfare program and for food stamps, insist the parent put in at least 30 hours a week, and if they don’t do that they have to be engaged in a job search or community service. Push them into the labor market and their earnings will go up.”

Wisconsin is the model on work, Rector said. “It’s the only state that has a universal work requirement for all TANF recipients. The caseload is down over 90 percent, and child poverty has been cut in half.” Those who remain on the rolls may be among the “hard-to-employ,” he said, but they are still required to engage in community service activities.

One of the reasons Wisconsin is a model is that the state has allotted its own resources to not only match, but exceed the federal block grant for TANF. “They haven’t met all the need, but they have understood that need for big investments in work supports,” said Deborah Weinstein, director of the family income division of the Children’s Defense Fund.

Difficult to earn living wage

However, Wisconsin was one of the states included in a Network Welfare Reform Watch study that revealed the difficulty of those leaving welfare rolls to earn a living wage, Clark said. “Even in Wisconsin, which has the best record, we see many people who are working coming to our agencies,” she told NCR.

Meanwhile, welfare recipients who do not find work may first face sanctions having their benefits reduced or eliminated and ultimately they reach the end of their cash benefits, having exceeded their lifetime limit.

Researchers say that many families who have been sanctioned for not complying with TANF requirements have multiple barriers to employment, such as low education levels, limited work experience, language barriers, greater incidence of domestic violence, physical and mental health problems, and lack of support services such as child care and transportation.

In a paper published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in March, Heidi Goldberg noted that many states have sanction policies that are more severe than required by the federal TANF law. States may impose sanctions for the first instance of noncompliance, and for a longer period of time than federal law requires.

Goldberg called such penalties “counterproductive, because the sanction destabilizes the family and reduces the chance that a parent can adequately support the family without welfare.” She urged that a wider range of activities count toward the work participation requirement including substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, and education and training programs.

According to Daly, efforts to place welfare recipients in jobs “concentrated on the easiest cases. There has not been much attention to the hard-to-serve cases. These people have already been cheated once. They didn’t get the specialized education they need, and here they’re about to be cheated again unless Congress says we need to pay attention to them.”

Those still on the welfare rolls may also face the expiration of the federal five-year lifetime limit on TANF payments. Some states have set even shorter time limits. While many activists would like to see the time limit eliminated completely, they are pushing for more exceptions. The welfare reform law allowed for exceptions of up to 20 percent of the current families on TANF a total that has been halved since 1996.

“It’s very worrisome that just as more families start exhausting the time-limited benefits, there will be fewer jobs for people to go to, and they’re losing the jobs they have,” Weinstein said.

“We know people who move from welfare disproportionately entered service jobs, jobs in the hospitality industry, restaurants, hotels, travel-related jobs all of which were hurt badly after Sept. 11,” she said. “Making the emphasis on poverty reduction, not just caseload reduction, is more important than ever.”

Government officials in several states including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Washington, New York and Minnesota have proposed plans to ease time limits in some form in light of the recession.

The Children’s Defense Fund advocates that states should be allowed to set categories of people, such as those with physical or mental disabilities or those caring for someone with a disability, who can be exempted from the time limit “rather than an artificial 20 percent exemption” provided for in the federal law, Weinstein said.

The clock is ticking for both Vivian Hain and Patricia Capell.

In Alameda County, Hain is participating in a community service work program to get a year extension on California’s 18-month limit on cash benefits for adults. She is in the program while going to school full-time, studying multimedia design without assistance from CalWorks, the California welfare program. The volunteer work is “taking my time from studying and from my children,” she said. Instead of forcing her into work, “they should let me finish school so I have no excuses.” Hain expects to earn her degree by spring 2003.

Off and on for the past five years, Capell has been taking courses part-time at a community college in the Kansas City area, working toward a degree in geology. She has used up about half of her five-year lifetime limit on welfare payments, which makes her a little nervous, she said, especially since losing her job in the summer. “But in another two years, I’ll be out of college, and I won’t need it at all,” she said.

For those having difficulties, “we need to figure out new ways to help them,” Haskins told NCR. “Get them in the work force, with work supports, and a new attention to education and training. The key ingredients are individual effort, individual responsibility plus public benefits.”

Teresa Malcolm is NCR news editor. Her e-mail address is tmalcolm@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 2002