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Evelyn Ramos, left, works with Lyubon Simanouskaya on application skills. (Helayne Sideman – The Post)

States' Welfare Shift: Stop It Before It Starts

By Barbara Vobejda and Judith Havemann
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 12, 1998; Page A01

In nearly three dozen states across the country, welfare officials are working vigorously to prevent families from ever getting on the rolls, a little-noticed shift in policy that is helping to fuel a historic decline in the number of Americans receiving assistance.

Welfare offices are urging applicants to ask for help from relatives instead of signing up for government assistance, writing onetime emergency checks in place of monthly benefits, or requiring applicants to spend weeks searching for work before they receive their first welfare payment.

The combination of these and similar efforts explains a significant portion of the decline in welfare caseloads, according to a Washington Post survey of state practices. One noted welfare researcher believes the policies are responsible for one-third of the 27 percent drop in caseloads since the nation's welfare system was overhauled in 1996.

The new tactic is critical to understanding the remarkable decline in the number of Americans who are receiving welfare over the past two years. While many poor families have moved off public assistance and into jobs, many others simply have never gone on the rolls, raising questions among policy analysts of whether they have found jobs on their own, never truly needed them in the first place, or have been scared off or intimidated from applying for help that their children genuinely require.

In Logan County, Colo., 90 percent of eligible applicants are diverted from welfare in exchange for onetime cash payments and the understanding that they cannot apply again for a prescribed period of time.

In Leavenworth County, Kan., where typical applicants must spend five days in an intensive job search before they are eligible, nearly two-thirds drop out of the process without going on welfare because they have either found jobs or chosen to make do on their own.

Similar strategies in Florida, Oregon, New York and more than two dozen other states have rerouted thousands of families who in the past automatically would have been moved onto welfare.

The District government is planning to implement a "diversion" program soon; Virginia offers onetime emergency payments, and Maryland offers those payments and requires a job search.

In all, 34 states now use some form of diversion, according to a study by George Washington University senior research scientist Kathleen A. Maloy and a survey by The Washington Post.

While there is little research on the effect of these policies, Richard Nathan, director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York in Albany, believes they are as important to explaining caseload drops as the vibrant economy and the "cultural" change in welfare offices.

The diversion efforts have become popular and controversial. Like many other new policies embedded in the 1996 reforms, this one rewrites a basic premise of welfare. Society has made it too easy in the past for families to become dependent on public assistance, according to those who pushed for welfare changes. Instead, the government should help them search for alternatives and treat welfare only as a last resort.

"The worst option is being completely destitute," said Jason Turner, New York City's welfare commissioner. Next to that "is support from the government."

Turner and other welfare officials argue that many applicants do not need a regular monthly benefit but would be better off with an emergency payment to repair a car or cover the rent. Many other applicants can find jobs or get help from family or churches, where they are part of a community, these officials say. And those who truly need aid will get it.

But the change in philosophy, say advocates for the poor, translates into a system that makes it so difficult to apply for aid that needy families are not getting the help they require. The government, they contend, is slamming the front door to the welfare system.

"They are pushing people out the door too fast," said Sister Jane Albert Mehrens, program director of the Catholic Community Services in Leavenworth, who said she sees the people who are falling through the cracks.

In New York City, a revamped application process aimed at reducing the number of people who get on the welfare rolls has had a dramatic impact. Four years ago, almost 80 percent of those who showed up seeking assistance ended up in the caseload, according to city figures. Now less than 25 percent do.

From the moment applicants arrive at the Greenwood Job Center in Brooklyn, a welfare office that has the feel of an employment training center, they are whisked through an intensive process meant to keep them off welfare. They are bombarded with messages reminding them that their benefits will run out after five years, that they must take jobs working for the city in exchange for any public assistance and that they will get a check only after they search for private-sector work.

Their first step is to meet with a "financial planner" who spends about an hour asking questions to determine a person's skills and needs. Center director Adrianne Fleming said the staff talks about whether a person could get assistance from the community, a church, Goodwill or other agencies. And they ask whether a relative could help. Workers will even call an applicant's mother or other relatives.

"That's the way people generally survive," she said. "If a parent or sister has been helping and can continue, I don't see any problem with us asking that." Welfare, she said, "should be the last resort. . . . Public assistance demoralizes people. It takes away their value."

Fleming said people in need are not turned away, and families often leave the office with a check to help avoid eviction or some other crisis.

On "Day Two," as it is known in the office, applicants must return to begin a job search and job preparation classes that will last as long as a month. It is not until Day Five that they are allowed to submit their application, a strategy to ensure that they explore every other alternative.

Maritza Benitez, 21, learns for the first time how to complete an application. (Helayne Sideman – The Post)
Some of those applying for welfare at Greenwood last week said they knew of others who had stayed away or dropped out of the process because of the hassle. But Maritza Benitez, 21, who is expecting a baby in October, said she was glad to visit the job center each day.

On a practice job application, Benitez said she filled in all the blanks for the first time in her life. "I finally learned what to write down for skills, that I could be 'reliable,' and 'responsible.' " Under "activities," she wrote that she had been a monitor in elementary school. "I thought before I couldn't write that down since it was just elementary."

She went to Greenwood the day before, hoping to get public assistance to help her care for her new baby and move out of her father's house. Now, she said, she figured with the help of the job counselors she could find work instead, perhaps as an office receptionist.

Each applicant receives a calendar filled in for the next month with job-searching requirements, job prep classes and other appointments. The purpose is to make it clear exactly what is required, that this won't be a free ride. Sometimes, applicants see the schedule and decide not to come back, Fleming said. "People have said, 'I need to watch my stories. This will interfere with Jerry Springer.' "

While few would dispute that encouraging a needy person to work is better than welfare, advocates and social policy analysts raise this concern: When the incentives for caseworkers are to steer as many people as possible away from welfare, do those workers remain conscientious in looking for families who are truly in need of assistance -- the mother of a handicapped child who cannot find day care, for example, or the woman whose limited cognitive skills makes finding steady work almost impossible? Will there be instances when asking family members to help could push those relatives into poverty themselves?

"They try to get you to say you really don't need welfare," said Tim Casey, a spokesman for the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, a New York City social service organization. "They're putting more fences up to jump over. Some people may be getting over and others are simply not getting applications."

In Missouri, the application process now includes a mandate to contact 10 employers each week for four weeks. Only then, in most cases, is an applicant considered eligible.

In Florida, where applicants must spend two weeks contacting more than a dozen employers, fewer than half of the applicants now end up on the rolls. That's down from 69 percent in 1994. The major cause of that change is the job-search requirement, said Don Winstead, Florida's welfare director.

Winstead argued that the policy is fair, even when many applicants appear at first to be unlikely to succeed. "Some people look like they are not employable and they go out and get jobs," he said.

In Kansas, which has one of the nation's most active diversion programs, just 13,000 families remain on cash assistance, down 44 percent since the federal welfare law was enacted. Once again, state officials say a major reason is the policy requiring applicants to search for work before they go on the rolls.

"People walk in the door and they are going to be going right back out the door with a list of job contacts," said John Garlinger, spokesman for the Kansas welfare department.

In Leavenworth County, said Eva Knight, a welfare supervisor, about half of those sent out to search for jobs "don't come back."

"They simply didn't want to go out and meet the requirement. . . . They probably have some other source of income. The need wasn't truly there," she said.

Sister Mehrens acknowledges that the welfare programs have produced notable successes, but she said she is seeing people kept off the rolls who are in real need.

She described a mother whose daughter had suffered brain damage in a car accident. To care for the girl, the mother had to quit her job but was unable to get public assistance because she could not meet the requirements. "The daughter was sitting here in the office; you could see the head injury," Mehrens said. "She was not getting the assistance she needed to get."

Knight said that this mother would, in fact, have been excused from the work requirements if she properly documented the child's injury, but the example illustrates the realities of administering welfare.

When many applicants speak poor English, are poorly educated and highly distrustful of government, it is hard to know whether a family is disappearing from the welfare process because it has other income or is simply unable to communicate why the work requirements are impossible to meet.

California, with nearly a quarter of the nation's welfare families, is just starting to implement its welfare reform program, including diversion. But Stanislaus County already knows about diversion, from the receiving end.

Nearly two months ago, a woman with two small children appeared at the county welfare office, asking for help. She had been diverted from Oregon, where officials had offered her money for a U-Haul, a day's meals and a night in a motel room so she could move to California to live with her mother.

"Oregon said they felt it would be better for her to be here with her family," said Kathy Harwell, a welfare supervisor in Stanislaus County, a farming community south of Sacramento. "We questioned this diversion from the Oregon rolls to the California rolls. She was seven months pregnant with a high-risk pregnancy, and she did the loading of the truck and all the driving with a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old."

Oregon officials were far from apologetic. "If the person wanted to be with her mother, that's her call," said James Neely, deputy administrator of the Adult and Family Services Division of the Oregon Department of Human Services. "States give and receive these cases equally."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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