Downside Of Welfare Reform -- No Safety Net

 

WASHINGTON - Of the 13 states that recently surveyed adults who have left the welfare roles, six asked detailed questions about how their families were coping. Each state found evidence of lives made harder by the loss of cash assistance. Many families said they were falling behind on the rent. Others were watching electric and gas bills mount. A small number related extreme hardships some were going without food, losing their housing or putting their children in the care of others.

No state reported the widespread suffering predicted by welfare reform opponents that hunger and homelessness would skyrocket but each found families facing mounting troubles.

What is happening to these families is not yet well understood.

"It's a different system with a different set of expectations. I think we don't know what it is, " said LaDonna Pavetti of Mathematica, a social research institute.

The hardships are no different from what befell families under the old welfare system, Aid to Families with Dependent Children. But under AFDC, families in trouble had the option of reapplying for welfare. Today, the bureaucracies of most states impose stronger deterrents to families that may want to return.

Under AFDC, poor mothers and their children were entitled to cash aid for as long as they were deemed eligible, with few strings attached. Today, in exchange for assistance, recipients must meet a range of obligations, from identifying the father of their children to embarking on a job search.

Almost every state now restricts families to five years or less of cash assistance. (Michigan, Vermont and Illinois are three exceptions.) In many states, caseworkers are trying to impress upon parents that they should save their family's time on the rolls for emergencies. With these new demands, some parents may not feel they will be successful if they try to return.

"People have put up with really unpleasant treatment in the welfare office in some places, not everywhere. But people have gone because they needed that help. Now they feel that's not there for them at all," said Deborah Weinstein of the Children's Defense Fund, a national poverty-rights advocacy group.

"Some (people) don't think they are eligible," said Jack Tweedie of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Some might not be [eligible]. Some don't have the organization in their lives."

In Washington and Wisconsin, 16 percent of former welfare recipients did not work at all within six months to a year of leaving the rolls. In Pennsylvania 24 percent never worked. In Texas and Florida, 25 percent failed to find any employment.

The leading reason former recipients gave for not working was a mental or physical health problem.

Florida's welfare leavers appear to be faring the worse. Researchers there talked to more than 1000 former recipients. Half said life after welfare was better, but 32 percent said they would return if they could. Half reported owing back rent, and 60 percent reported falling behind on utilities. More than 40 percent reported a time when they had problems buying food. Two hundred families, about 20 percent, said they had moved because they did not have enough money to pay rent.

Three percent of the adults who participated in the Florida survey 30 former recipients reported they had spent at least one night in a homeless shelter since leaving welfare.

Florida is one of 15 states to have begun imposing time limits. It restricts recipients to no more than three years of benefits. However, only four percent of the families surveyed said they had left the welfare rolls because they had used up their allotment of aid.

In Oklahoma, where researchers talked to families who had returned to welfare as well as families who had not, almost 25 percent said they had lost their heat, gas, water or electric service since Oklahoma's new welfare program began in October 1996. More than 18 percent had changed residences because they could not pay the rent. Ten recipients, 3.4 percent, said they had been homeless or lived in a shelter at least once.

In Washington State, 29 percent of former recipients said they relied on food banks. Eleven percent said they had been without a place to live at least once. Six families, one percent of those quizzed, had a child who had spent time in foster care.

Kansas found 37 percent considered themselves worse off since leaving welfare. More than five families, out of 291, said they had become homeless; 19 percent reported problems paying for food; 35 percent faced overdue bills and 15 percent had sent their children to live with the other parent, another family member or the foster care system.

South Carolina and Wisconsin asked families to compare life off welfare to life on. In South Carolina, more reported they had trouble paying rent since leaving welfare; more than a quarter said they had fallen behind on a rent or mortgage bill. Twice as many found it harder to buy food. More families also reported placing their children in the care of others because they could not afford to support them.

Although Wisconsin reported higher levels of deprivation than South Carolina, it also found a number of families for whom financial difficulties had eased since leaving welfare. Almost 70 percent of Wisconsin families reported that life off welfare was better. Fewer said they had gone to a homeless shelter after leaving welfare than before. Fewer said they had had a problem paying the utility bills. Many more families, however, said that, since leaving the rolls, they had experienced a time when they could not afford food. Nineteen families, about five percent, said their children were living elsewhere because they could not care for them.

Wisconsin officials say they hope the families in real trouble will return for help. Wisconsin has recently begun using its enormous welfare savings, accumulated due to the unprecedented drop in its caseloads, for outreach programs.

"If they have left, we try to get them back so we can help them," said Jean Rogers of the state's Department of Workforce Development. But "if there's a point at which someone doesn't want to be helped, you can't do it."

Sociologists generally agree that the five-year time limits are not yet having a strong impact on who uses welfare and who doesn't. Wisconsin may be an exception. It began imposing work requirements and time limits earlier than most states. Since 1993, its caseload has declined by almost 90 percent.

"In some states, there's a lot of emphasis on time limits," said Thomas Kaplan of the Institute for Research on Poverty. "I think I see it in Wisconsin. Is it getting through? I guess I'd be surprised if it didn't."

Social scientists emphasize the wide variations in ability among those who turn to the welfare system for help. Historically, two-thirds will need welfare for less than five years. Those in what is referred to as the bottom third,' however, face many difficulties in finding a job. They are more likely to be learning disabled, to be victims of domestic violence, to be addicted to drugs or alcohol, or to suffer from mental illness. States may exempt 20 percent of these people from the federal five-year cutoff in assistance. The question is whether 20 percent will be enough.

"Are people who are in the lower echelon better or worse off?" said Kaplan. "I don't know the answer to that yet." 

 
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