Welfare Crisis Looms in Pennsylvania
By Monica Yant, Special to Stateline
PHILADELPHIA - Taped to a wall where Monica McFadden waits for her caseworker is a somber reminder of how far welfare reform has come in Pennsylvania. "One Check Left," the sign says.
To McFadden and thousands of other women like her, March spells the beginning of the end. Statewide, 37,734 adults - mostly single mothers - will hit their two-year limit for public assistance. Under Pennsylvania law, they are required to work for 20 hours a week, or else lose welfare benefits for the whole family.
Some 25,876 of them, nearly 70 percent, live in Philadelphia and its suburbs. McFadden is among many who wonder if, and how, they can survive without public assistance.
"Even if you get a job, you can't just be done with it," said McFadden, a 28 year-old West Philadelphia mother of four who can't remember how long she's been on welfare. "When you get in the system, it's hard to get out."
Across Pennsylvania, another 2,000 people will hit their two-year limits each month through the end of 1999. By June, 2000, 70,000 of the state's 117,000 adults on welfare must abide by the new, strict work rules designed to prepare people for the five-year federal lifetime limit they will someday face.
If Pennsylvania has been criticized for any aspect of its welfare law, the definition of work has drawn the most fire. Simply put, only work equals work; it could be an unpaid internship, on-the-job training, a subsidized public jobs program or a work-study arrangement for recipients in college.
Though welfare recipients were required to do little more than an eight-week job search for the first two years, the post-24-month rules are considered among the most strict in the nation. Welfare Secretary Feather O. Houstoun defends the rules as a necessary precaution.
"We have no intention of letting people waste the last three years of their welfare benefits," she says.
Seven out of 10 of those about to be penalized by the clock that started running when the U.S. welfare system was restructured in 1996 have been on welfare more than three years, while a smaller group, just 40 percent, have been on more than seven years, according to Department of Public Welfare statistics. Roughly 60 percent have only one or two children. Fifty-three percent have a high school diploma or GED. A little more than half have recent work histories.
How all of them will enter the workplace remains to be seen, especially in Philadelphia, which has lost 100,000 jobs in the last 10 years.
"We have all these billboards around town saying, 'Hire my mom,' but how does that work if we don't have jobs?" asked City Councilman Angel Ortiz, who last month issued a cautionary report about welfare reform's potential damage to Philadelphia's still-shaky financial recovery.
No less than Mayor Ed Rendell has publicly called the coming deadlines "a train wreck" about to hit the city. His staff predicts that federal and state welfare reform will lead to a loss of $3.2 billion from Philadelphia's economic base by fiscal year 2003.
Already, the city is adding money to its budgets to cope with increases at homeless shelters and public health clinics, not to mention a foster care system that expects to see at place 250 new children this year as a result of welfare mothers being unable to support their families.
"If you're charged with the city's guardianship, this is the kind of thing that wakes you up in the middle of the night," said Deputy Mayor Kevin Feeley. "It's a disaster. How do you fix it?"
On the other side of the Delaware River in New Jersey, the scenario is similar, but state welfare officials are predicting a greater success.
About 24,000 adults on welfare in New Jersey face the two-year work deadline this month. As in Pennsylvania, New Jersey work requirements are also strict. Work weeks must be 35 hours, not 20, but 15 of those hours can be devoted to education.
Jacqueline Tencza of the New Jersey Department of Human Services estimates more than half the recipients facing the deadline are already working and, she says, state welfare workers are pushing to place the other 10,000.
Half of that 10,000 live in Essex County, which includes Newark. Tencza said social services employees there began calling recipients facing the deadline in January.
"We've had a lot of success face-to-face, bringing people into the welfare office, explaining what the requirements are. We're feeling pretty confident that most people will meet the requirement."" she said.
So far, 50 to 60 percent have responded. For those who don't, New Jersey will begin docking the family's monthly check in March. By the end of May, it will close their case and cut off all assistance.