Welfare Reform's Shortcoming

By Mark E. Courtney
Monday, July 24, 2006

Almost 10 years after President Bill Clinton signed the welfare reform law, it's pretty clear that it has, as promised, ended welfare as we knew it.

Nationally, cash-assistance rolls have fallen by almost half. Many former welfare recipients now work. And more low-income parents are receiving child care subsidies than ever before.

You'll be hearing a lot of success stories as the Aug. 22 anniversary of welfare reform approaches. But research at Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago has uncovered a dark side to the story. Simply put, many of the parents coming into the welfare office today are too unhealthy, too poorly educated, too service-needy and too psychosocially challenged to work. And the typical welfare office isn't doing enough to help them.

Beginning in March 1999, my colleagues and I spent four years tracking 1,075 parents, primarily mothers, who applied for welfare in Milwaukee County, Wis., the epicenter for experimentation with welfare since the mid- '80s. It was the first major long-term study of a representative sample of welfare applicants since welfare reform became the law of the land.

Wisconsin took a "work first" approach to reform, which many states have copied. The goal was to put people to work as fast as possible without assessing barriers to employability. We wanted to understand what kind of parents were still seeking help from the government even though they knew that not much was to be had, and whether the help they got improved their circumstances. What we found was sobering:

· More than four of five parents reported at least one potential barrier to employment: a disability; a disabled family member; poor or fair health; no high school diploma or general equivalency diploma; a mental health problem; an alcohol or drug problem; involvement in a physically abusive relationship. More than half reported two or more barriers to employment, and almost three in 10 reported three or more.

· The number of barriers decreased during the study, but four years later, three of four parents still reported at least one. More than half still lacked a diploma or GED, almost two in five had mental health problems and nearly one in five reported a disability.

· Perhaps most alarming, there was evidence of serious stress at home. More than half the parents had already been investigated for child maltreatment when they applied for welfare. Two of five were investigated in the next five years, and about one-sixth had a child placed in foster care.

It's clear from our study that Wisconsin's work-first approach did not pay off for many parents. After peaking in 1999, the proportion of parents who were employed in any year declined steadily. By 2003 only three of five parents had worked in at least one quarter. On average, only one in three worked in all four quarters in any given year.

In addition, four years after asking the welfare office for help, the parents were no better off financially. By 2003 the sample's median income from earnings and welfare payments had actually fallen. Eighty-six percent were raising children on incomes below poverty level.

Partly in response to our research, Wisconsin officials admitted that their work-first approach was a mistake. They say that they are now doing more to help welfare applicants address their personal challenges.

It's understandable that many states took a work-first approach to welfare reform. The Deficit Reduction Act that Congress passed last year will penalize states that fail to significantly increase the proportion of welfare participants working or training for work.

But states that don't help welfare participants overcome their personal challenges will have trouble avoiding penalties. If Wisconsin's experience is any indication, the majority of parents applying for welfare today are simply not employable when they walk in the door.

The typical welfare office has changed since 1996, but not enough. The post-welfare-reform welfare office needs to do much more than certify eligibility, offer work-readiness classes and serve as a source of low-wage workers for big employers. For a start, it should assess the educational and psychosocial needs of every applicant. And then it must help parents address those needs.

Let's not forget that welfare is first and foremost a program for the support of children. If we know that many parents applying for welfare have been investigated for child maltreatment and that they're very likely to be investigated again, how can we justify not offering them voluntary preventive services, such as parenting classes?

It's time for the post-welfare reform welfare office to stop focusing only on putting parents to work and to begin providing parents with the supports they need to succeed at both parenting and work.

The writer is director of Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago and the McCormick Tribune professor of social service administration.


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