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Most Find Jobs After Leaving Welfare

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  • On the Web: Urban Institute Study of Former Welfare Recipients

  • By Judith Havemann
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, May 27, 1999; Page A1

    Nearly three years after the enactment of federal welfare reform, between 61 percent and 87 percent of adults leaving public assistance have gotten jobs, a far higher number than previously reported, according to a comprehensive review of welfare research scheduled to be released on Capitol Hill this morning.

    "This is an unprecedented increase in labor force participation by low-income, especially never-married mothers," House Republican leaders said in a statement that accompanies the General Accounting Office's summary of research from 17 states, including Maryland.

    Antipoverty advocates, however, point to evidence that many former welfare recipients are struggling to make ends meet. The GAO report shows that many of the jobs they obtain are short-lived, the majority are low-paying and between 19 percent and 30 percent of the people who leave welfare find it necessary to return to the rolls.

    While the state studies reviewed by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, are incomplete and far from uniform, there is a consensus that a majority of former recipients found at least temporary work. The seven most comprehensive studies showed:

    Between 63 percent and 87 percent of former recipients had a job at some point after leaving welfare.

    Between 61 percent and 71 percent were employed at the time they were surveyed.

    The average hourly wage rate ranged from $5.67 in Tennessee to $8.09 in Washington state.

    Typical families worked more than 32 hours a week in all seven states.

    In Maryland, one of the states with the most comprehensive studies, 63 percent of former recipients have "ever" been employed since leaving public assistance, the GAO reported. On average, they would have earned $9,536 if they worked for the entire year.

    The results, scheduled to be presented today at a hearing before the House Ways and Means human resources subcommittee, have already begun to generate debate within the public policy community.

    "People are choosing different parts of the data to emphasize for their purposes," said Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Those who are positive about welfare reform are focusing on the totally unexpected story of more work and less dependency," he said. "Those who are negative about welfare reform are focusing on the statistical suggestion that some families are not doing quite as well as they used to."

    Wendell Primus, director of income security at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, and a witness at today's hearing, said that the poorest 10 percent of families headed by single mothers have actually lost about $860 in annual income between 1995 and 1997, when the welfare law went into full effect.

    Mark Greenberg, senior staff attorney at the Center for Law and Social Policy, another liberal group, said that "typically most of these families are still earning below the poverty level and are often in jobs without health care coverage or other benefits."

    House Republican leaders, including Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and subcommittee Chairman Nancy L. Johnson (Conn.), say they believe the evidence is clear: "The 1996 welfare reform law is one of the most successful pieces of social legislation in American history."

    The White House, too, praised the results of the legislation signed by President Clinton in August 1996. "The president's strategy of requiring work and rewarding people who go to work is working," said Bruce Reed, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. "There has definitely been a dramatic increase in the number of single parents entering the work force over the past five years."

    In a paper scheduled for delivery at today's fact-heavy hearing, congressional Republicans boast that welfare reform has transformed welfare offices across the country from check-writing centers to places where welfare recipients are helped to get jobs. They point out that states have more money to run their benefit and work programs than in the past, that well over a million young mothers are now working rather than "languishing on welfare," and that the child poverty rate declined 3 percent in 1997, the first full year of welfare reform implementation.

    Researchers note, however, that it is impossible to determine what is most responsible for the decline in child poverty. "How do you untangle the effects of a booming economy, of an increase in the minimum wage, a boost in [tax benefits for the working poor] and the welfare law?" said Primus.

    The GAO study noted that in two states, South Carolina and Wisconsin, former recipients were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement: "Life was better when you were on welfare." In both states, the overwhelming majority disagreed.

    At the same time, the report concluded, "Former welfare recipients in both states were more likely to experience some deprivations after leaving welfare than while on welfare." The most common hardships in the two states were a higher likelihood of getting behind in rent or house payments, and not having enough money to buy food or medical care.

    An Urban Institute review of welfare studies issued recently pointed out the pitfalls of the early research in the field. So far -- apart from Texas, which has conducted surveys but was not included in the GAO review -- neither the largest states nor those with the most welfare recipients have been studied. Moreover, much of the research about employment rates does not count recipients who have returned to the welfare rolls, and some ignores those who have been kicked off public assistance as punishment for violating welfare rules.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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