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Poverty Up as Welfare Enrollment Declines

Nation's Social Safety Net in Tatters As More People Lose Their Jobs

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2004; Page A03

Tina Taylor was a model of what welfare reform was supposed to do.

Taylor, 44, a single mother, had spent six years on public assistance. After 1996, when changes were made in welfare law to push people into work, she got a job that paid $400 a week and allowed her family to live independently. For the first time in a long time, she could afford to clothe and feed her two children, and even rent a duplex on the beach in Norfolk.

After losing her job last year, however, Taylor has been unable to find full-time work in an economy that still has a million fewer jobs than it did at the start of a brief recession more than three years ago.

She is back in poverty. But she hasn't gone back on welfare.

Her story illustrates a seeming paradox in the U.S. economy: Though the number of welfare recipients continues to decline, poverty rates -- particularly for single mothers and children -- have surged in recent years. Just last month, the government reported that the number of people on welfare had declined by 149,000 at the end of 2003 compared with 2002, while the number in poverty rose by 1.3 million. Those divergent trends offer fresh ammunition to both sides in the debate over whether, eight years after the fact, welfare reform is working.

Nationally, fewer than half of the families eligible for welfare received it in 2001, the most recent year for which statistics are available, compared with roughly 80 percent before the 1996 legislation. Reform supporters say that is exactly what the changes were meant to accomplish -- recasting welfare as a last resort instead of a crutch. "What is happening is that people are making do, without having to go back on welfare," said Douglas J. Besharov, a University of Maryland professor and resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

But some advocates for the poor say cases like Taylor's show that families are not getting the assistance they need at a time when a good job -- or any job -- can be hard to find. "The same people who fall through the employment net now also fall through the welfare net," said Ellen Bravo, outgoing director of the Milwaukee advocacy group 9to5, National Association of Working Women.

In Taylor's case, she mistakenly thought that if she enrolled in welfare, she would have to give up her child-support payments. No one at the social services office told her about a recent policy change that would entitle her to welfare benefits and child support, she said. For more than a year, her family lived in what the census defines as "deep" poverty -- earning less than half the poverty level of $14,824 for an adult supporting two children. In Taylor's case, she was getting by on about $217 a month in child support and $274 in food stamps.

"I worked my way out of poverty," said Taylor, recalling the days when she had a degree of financial independence. "Now I'm all the way at the bottom again."

Bravo said stories like Taylor's are not uncommon. The state welfare agencies that administer the program, she said, have an incentive to keep people off the rolls because they're striving to meet targets for reducing their caseloads. "The program was designed with a premium put on getting people off the rolls. The idea was ending welfare rather than ending poverty; reducing caseloads rather than reducing suffering," she said.

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