States Fine-Tune New Welfare Programs
By Clare Nolan, Senior Writer
Most states are not making dramatic changes to their welfare programs this year, but are fine-tuning their rules, a result of their growing awareness of the needs of families on public assistance. Some states are loosening their welfare policies, but Hawaii is one state that recently decided to get tough on adults who do not work.
Under rules announced by the federal government in April, states have until October to develop plans for the $3 billion welfare surplus leftover from the precipitous drop in caseloads. "That's putting pressure on them," said Rebecca Brown of the National Governors' Association. "That was something that was not really expected by them."
Many states have decided to spend a chunk of that money on child care. Some are also using some of their surplus funds to finance new programs for welfare recipients with serious problems.
The federal Workforce Investment Act is also spurring changes. The 1998 law requires states to consolidate their many job programs into so-called one-stop shops, so welfare recipients and other job seekers can get all the information they need in one place.
One state -- Ohio -- is merging its Human Services Department and Bureau of Employment Services. If all goes according to plan, families in need in Ohio will visit just one office to apply for cash assistance, food stamps, healthcare and job training and placement programs.
New Rules in Delaware
Delaware has increased the amount of hours in school a welfare recipient may count as work. To meet the 20-hour-a-week work requirement, recipients will be able to count the time they spend attending class. Most will still have to work, but for fewer hours. The new rule should prevent parents in school from dropping out or cutting back on their classes in order to meet the work rules. Arkansas also made a similar change this year.
In October, Delaware plans to announce other new policies. The state plans to stop the clock on lifetime assistance -- now set at five years -- if a recipient is working 20 hours a week. Only Illinois offers its welfare recipients a similar deal, which advocates for the poor have hailed as a model for the nation.
At the same time, however, Delaware plans to move recipients into work faster. The state now allows recipients two years to join the labor market. As of October, it plans to require recipients to begin working immediately.
Faced with parents who were defying the state's work requirement, Hawaii decided to toughen its welfare rules this year. As of July 1, adults on welfare who are not working as required will lose their entire cash benefit. Previously the state cut only the parent's portion of the benefit. The state will mete out the first penalties in September.
"We want everybody to really go to work. You know we really worry about that five-year limit," said Henry Ku of the Hawaii Department of Human Services.
Hawaii also recently began a job subsidy program. The state pays employers $650 a month for every welfare recipients they hire for jobs paying at least the minimum wage.
New Spending in Tennessee Tennessee has announced it will spend $48.5 million of its welfare surplus on various new initiatives, including improving child care. It also has designated $66 million as a reserve fund.
It is also increasing the amount adults can earn before they lose their cash assistance; The idea is to let them to establish a work history before they leave welfare completely. Texas and Missouri enacted similar provisions this year. Tennessee will also spend more than $15 billion on transportation to and from jobs for the first four months after adults leave welfare. It is also launching programs for its hardest cases: those with learning disabilities or drug and alcohol problems and victims of domestic violence.
Like Tennessee, a number of states have begun to implement programs to help the hardest-to-serve. Most states have begun programs in only a few counties, waiting to see if they work before expanding them.
- Illinois runs a program in a Chicago suburb to screen parents for domestic violence and refer them to counseling. At least one of Maryland's counties, Anne Arundel, trains caseworkers to spot victims of domestic violence. Arkansas, Alaska, Kansas, South Carolina and Texas also run screening programs in some areas.
- Oregon is the national leader in screening recipients for drug and alcohol abuse. Illinois has followed the Oregon model and has brought substance abuse professionals into some of its welfare offices. In October, Michigan will begin a pilot program to test all welfare applicants for drugs.
- Kansas and Washington State are at the forefront in offering help to learning-disabled parents. Both states have teamed up with community colleges to test welfare applicants and develop education programs to help them. Rhode Island, Arkansas and California have also recently developed tools for assessing learning disabilities. South Carolina finances adult literacy programs in conjunction with its Head Start centers, something Kansas and Washington also do.
In developing a new welfare system that emphasizes work rather than eligibility, a number of states have moved programs between agencies, abolished some departments and created new ones. Arizona, Utah and Wisconsin are three examples.
This year, Ohio is joining them. By July 1, 2000 the state plans to merge its Human Services Department and Bureau of Employment Services into a Department of Job and Family Services.
Carol Drake, project manager of the merger, says Ohio is the first to combine both departments completely, a process that affects 4,200 employees. "We've been told we're trailblazers," she said.
"The idea is to have no wrong door, that these people come in and don't have to be directed to another agency, another building," she said. The federal government will pay much of the cost of the consolidation.
Child care - improving it or expanding it - has occupied many states this year. Many are choosing to spend large chunks of their federal welfare money on child care, as well as their own revenues. The spending increases for these programs are surpassing any other funding hikes for programs specifically for the poor. Child care is universally recognized as a pivotal need for all adults who are trying to leave welfare for work. Most of the families on welfare are single mothers and children.
- North Carolina this year approved another expansion in the state's Smart Start program. Smart Start provides preventative health care and child care for pre-schoolers. Over the next two years, the state will spend an additional $58 million, allowing the program to expand to all 100 counties. North Carolina already spends more than $85 million on Smart Start.
- This year and next, Maine plans to spend $8.5 million more on child care services. Some of the money will pay for services at odd hours. Maine plans to pay for the increase with funds from its share of the tobacco settlement.
- Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, and Texas have all increased funding for child care this year. In an effort to improve the quality of care, some have increased the amount of the subsidies they pay child care workers.