10 years of welfare reform assessed
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When federal welfare reform was implemented 10 years ago today to provide work-related programs to get people off the rolls and back to work, it had people like Ivy Pack in mind.
Ms. Pack, 31, graduated from Carrick High School in 1992 and embarked on a career as an aesthetician. After cosmetology school, she worked at area salons for seven years.
But when her son Asaunte was born in 1999, the single mother's dreams gave way to the reality of juggling a newborn and a job. She tried to do both, working part-time jobs while using relatives for child care. In time, she lost her East Liberty apartment and moved into her sister's basement.
Although Ms. Pack managed occasional work over the years, she also received two years' worth of welfare checks.
Today, Ms. Pack works 20 hours a week as an administrative assistant with Just Harvest, and plans to attend community college. She receives plenty of help -- Section 8 housing, food stamps, subsidized child care and state-funded medical care for her son -- but her cash benefits have stopped.
"It provides a challenge," Ms. Pack said of the $400 salary she nets each month. "My pay is just enough, no extras. I'm being rewarded with each step by being able to become more self-sufficient."
During the past decade, welfare reform, known as TANF, or Temporary Aid to Needy Families, has reduced the number of people receiving monthly cash benefits from 12.2 million to 4.2 million. Most of those occurred during the economic boom of the late 1990s.
New rules implemented this summer require states to have more than 50 percent of their welfare recipients either working or in approved training by Oct. 1 or face cuts in federal funds.
But the drop in numbers doesn't tell the full story.
While the overall child poverty rate declined between 1996 and 2004, from 20.5 percent to 17.8 percent, it increased 10 percent between 2000 and 2004. Three of four families on welfare are headed by unmarried women, and while many have left the welfare rolls for part- or full-time employment, the low-paying jobs have left them struggling to handle the costs of child care, transportation and daily life.
"A full-time job at the minimum wage is not an alternative to poverty," said Gwendolyn Mink, author of "Welfare's End" and a professor at Smith College. "It's a guarantee of prolonged poverty."
The goal of TANF, which replaced a six-decades-old welfare entitlement program, was to get people back to work or in programs leading to employment. It set a five-year lifetime cap on cash benefits and work requirements for individuals. States received annual community development block grants and had the flexibility to spend them on cash assistance, job training, education or other supports.
But the 1996 law had a loophole: The more a state's caseload dropped below 50 percent, correspondingly fewer people remaining on the rolls had to work.
The new rules are more rigid. After Oct. 1, states will have to verify the number of people working -- mandated at 50 percent of adult welfare recipients -- and their hours. States face a reduction of their federal welfare grant by 5 percent the first year and 2 percentage points for each additional year they are not in compliance, up to 21 percent. Pennsylvania annually receives $719 million in federal funding for TANF.
About 32 percent of Pennsylvanians receiving welfare are either working or in training programs, according to the state Department of Public Welfare.
"We are dead set and committed to meeting this [mandated federal deadline]," said Stacey Ward, a welfare department spokeswoman. "It's a matter of us really working with clients."
Under a state pilot program that will be fully implemented by Sept. 4, within a week of applying for welfare, people able to work will be placed with contractors to help them find jobs. If they have not found employment within three months, they will receive further training.
Statewide, the rolls have been trimmed from 418,041 in August 1996 to 251,490 in July. In the six-county Western Pennsylvania area, the combined welfare rolls declined from 72,181 people to 42,191 in that same period. In Allegheny County, the drop was 44,939 to 29,361.
"That's a good step, but it's nothing to celebrate," said Berry Friesen, executive director of the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center. "Those people [off the rolls] are still struggling to keep themselves fed."
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan Washington policy group, estimates the number of children living in families with cash incomes below half the poverty line increased by 758,000 between 2000 and 2004. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' poverty guideline for a family of three, including two children, is an annual income of $16,600.
Based on a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey in October, 11.9 percent of American households -- nearly 13.5 million households -- were at risk of hunger, including 4.4 million with hunger.
Between 2002 and 2004 in Pennsylvania, 2.9 percent of all households experienced hunger.
"In general, I do not view this as an indictment of welfare reform," Mr. Friesen said, "but rather of our nation's economic performance. But it does relate to welfare reform.
"The 'better life' to which we are inviting welfare families is increasingly shadowed by hunger and food insecurity. I expect this undermines the economic incentive upon which welfare reform is premised."
First Published August 22, 2006 12:00 am