Welfare Changes A Burden To States

U. of Southern Maine President Richard Pattenaude honors Emily Wood as outstanding senior. She attended with help from welfare.
U. of Southern Maine President Richard Pattenaude honors Emily Wood as outstanding senior. She attended with help from welfare. (Courtesy Of The University Of Southern Maine)
By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 7, 2006

Having grown up on welfare, Rochelle Riordan had vowed never to ask for a government handout. That was before her hard-drinking husband kicked her and their young daughter out of their house near Lewiston, Maine, leaving her with a $300 bank account, a bad job market and a 15-year-old car held together in spots with duct tape.

Maine's welfare agency, she heard, was offering help for poor parents to go to college full time. With the state paying for day care and $513 a month in living expenses, Riordan, 37, has been on the dean's list every semester at the University of Southern Maine, expecting to graduate and start a social work career next spring. But this summer, her plans -- and Maine's Parents as Scholars program -- suddenly are on shaky ground; under new federal rules, studying for a bachelor's degree no longer counts by itself as an acceptable way for people on welfare to spend their time.

A decade after the government set out to transform the nation's welfare system, the limits on college are part of a controversial second phase of welfare reform that is beginning to ripple across the country. The new rules, written by Congress and the Bush administration, require states to focus intensely on making more poor people work, while discouraging other activities that might help untangle their lives.

By Oct. 1, state and local welfare offices must figure out how to steer hundreds of thousands of low-income adults into jobs or longer work hours. They also must adjust to limits on the length of time people on welfare can devote to trying to shed drug addictions, recover from mental illnesses or get an education.

This second generation of change reverses a central idea behind the 1996 law that ended six decades of welfare as an unlimited federal entitlement to cash assistance. The law decentralized welfare, handing states a lump sum of money and the freedom to design their own programs of temporary help for poor families. Ten years later, the government is tightening the federal reins.

Many state officials and advocates are furious. "You had fixed block grants in exchange for state flexibility," said Elaine M. Ryan, deputy executive director of the American Public Human Services Association, which represents welfare directors around the country. "Now you have fixed block grants in exchange for federal micromanagement. . . . That was not the deal."

Based on interviews with welfare officials in 10 states, including in the Washington area, the new requirements conflict in significant ways with the eclectic approaches to welfare that states have chosen.

States are struggling to decide how to comply. Some are exploring the idea of walling off certain groups of welfare clients into separate, state-funded programs, avoiding large federal penalties by insulating people from the new rules. Some states are scrambling to change how their welfare clients spend their time. Others are frankly unsure what they will do.

"States are kind of in a low-grade panic," said Ron Haskins, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who helped to write the 1996 law and later worked on welfare in the Bush White House.

In a climate of such flux, most of the nearly 2 million families on welfare nationwide are not yet feeling any change. Many will soon.

Riordan heard about the threat to her last year of college a few weeks ago. "I feel nauseous," she said. "This is my ticket . . . out of poverty."

In August 1996, when Congress passed the Welfare Reform Act, neither supporters nor critics predicted its dramatic effects: The number of families on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, as welfare became known, has plummeted by 60 percent.

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