Welfare's safety net hard to measure among states

By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 3:50 PM

The nation's welfare system of cash assistance, for decades the core of help for mothers and children in financial distress, has become a shrunken piece of the U.S. social safety net.

The welfare rolls have absorbed relatively few of the Americans who have tumbled lately into poverty or unemployment.

The number of families getting welfare checks, federal figures show, increased by about 185,000 between the start of the recession in late 2007 and this spring. During roughly the same period, the number of families living in poverty rose by more than 400,000 to record levels, according to the Census Bureau, which reported this week that, in Washington, three out of 10 children were poor last year.

State by state, welfare programs are a patchwork, with little connection between the condition of a state's economy and the number of people who have gone onto welfare.

Taken together, this new portrait of welfare answers a central question that hovered over the impassioned debate of the mid-1990s, when Congress and the Clinton administration transformed welfare from a federal entitlement into a state-run program of temporary assistance that emphasized work. How would the reshaped welfare system respond, policymakers and advocates wondered then, if the economy plunged into long, serious trouble?

Nearly three years after the start of a grave economic downturn, it now is clear that "despite extremely high levels of employment, that has not translated into welfare increases as much as many people expected," said Douglas J. Besharov, a University of Maryland professor who has studied welfare for years.

Welfare's role will be further diminished after Thursday, when emergency funds Congress began providing early last year to help states cope with hard economic times run out. Despite urging from the Obama administration and welfare directors around the country, lawmakers decided not to extend the emergency welfare money, which gave states more than $4 million, in part to subsidize wages to help people go to work.

Congress also was scheduled this year to renew the entire welfare program, known officially as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, but deferred the task until at least next year.

For now, debate rages between conservatives and liberals over whether welfare is playing the role it should.

Robert Rector, an authority on welfare at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the program has become "just a drop in the bucket" but that has been offset by "just a massive expansion" of other government help, including tax credits.

LaDonna Pavetti, who tracks welfare rolls at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said the program "no longer reaches the number of people it should. There are people who are in need."

Pavetti pointed out that in some states, including those with the most severe job losses, welfare rolls have risen with poverty rates, while in others they have not.

In California, with the nation's third-highest unemployment rate, welfare caseloads swelled by nearly one-fourth since the recession began to a half-million families this summer, according to state figures. But in Michigan, with the second-highest unemployment, caseloads had increased by 2 percent as of this spring, federal figures show. And in Rhode Island, with the fourth-highest unemployment, welfare cases dropped by 10 percent.

Welfare rolls have risen lately in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

Nationwide, welfare cases grew by 11 percent from the start of the recession through March, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. In contrast, the number of families getting food stamps jumped by 50 percent and the number getting unemployment benefits more than doubled. Medicaid grew by more than 13 percent from late 2007 to late 2009, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

David Hansell, head of HHS's Administration for Children and Families, which oversees welfare, said the reason welfare rolls have lagged "is a very important question" that is not fully understood.

He and others say there is no single reason. But one explanation lies in the discretion states were given starting in 1996 to design their program. California, for instance, allows families with higher incomes to receive welfare than would in many other states. It also is one of few states that continues benefits for children even if their parents have been kicked off because they had been on the rolls longer than time limits, or failed to meet work requirements.

On the other hand, faced with state budget crises, Rhode Island and Michigan lowered the amount of time families could receive benefits.

Another reason the rolls have not grown more rapidly is that most of those who have lost jobs lately are men, Hansell pointed out, while welfare is designed primarily to help children and single women.

In addition, since welfare was redefined as a program requiring job training, some people who would qualify have shied away. Kristin S. Seefeldt of Indiana University said poor women she has followed over time have increasingly resented that welfare would require them to get job training when already they knew how to work but could not find employment. "They understood the program as being ridiculous," Seefeldt, an assistant professor for public and environmental affairs, said. "For a very small amount of benefits, why go through the hassle?"

More recently, welfare programs in budget-strapped states are trying to help people without giving them ongoing cash assistance. For instance, Russell Sykes, who overseas welfare in New York state and leads the National Association of State TANF Administrators, said, "we are doing a huge number" of single payments, in part with the emergency federal funds that just ended, to prevent families from having utilities shut off or being evicted.

And three dozen states have used a total of more than $1 billion of the emergency funds to subsidize pay for about 250,000 Americans who otherwise would probably not have gotten hired, according to welfare directors and Obama administration officials. While cash assistance has grown modestly, job subsidies "became the little engine that could," said Don Winstead, deputy secretary of the Floria Department of Children and Families.

The Heritage Foundation's Rector said states could have used federal welfare money for that purpose all along, but now "understand an emphasis on work is the best way to get more money" from Congress.

Others predict that welfare's reach will be narrowed further. "The emergency fund is expiring, poverty is going up," said Sheldon H. Danziger, a University of Michigan researcher on poverty, "and there are all these people getting food stamps and Medicaid but not cash."

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