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The Welfare Alarm That Didn't Go Off

By Judith Havemann and Barbara Vobejda
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 1, 1998; Page A01

The first significant time limits on welfare benefits are expiring in 14 states, but only a fraction of recipients will lose their assistance, defying predictions that the deadlines would create a welfare doomsday when huge numbers of poor people would be pushed abruptly from the rolls.

The deadlines were viewed as the nuclear weapon of welfare reform because they meant that for the first time in the 60-year history of the program, families would be restricted in how long they could receive benefits. Those new limits, designed to push people into jobs, take effect today in Florida and South Carolina, and soon after in Massachusetts and Louisiana. They have already kicked in for 10 other states.

But the limits are essentially being sidestepped because states with plummeting caseloads believe they can afford to give those recipients still on the rolls a break. Many families won't be subjected to the limits, and those who are will be granted frequent extensions, according to a survey of state policies by The Washington Post.

Out of a caseload of 776,476 in the 12 states where time limits either have expired or are set to expire today, nearly half of the recipients have been exempted from the rules because they have small children, disabilities or other factors that state officials believe make it difficult or impossible for them to get a job. Of the 46,344 families who have already reached the deadline, 16,255 have been granted extensions.

The experience in these states provides an early glimpse of a policy that will eventually touch every welfare office in the country as their time limits begin taking effect in the coming months and years.

In Florida, where nearly 99,000 families receive aid, about 1,216 will hit a two-year limit Oct. 1. But the state has extended benefits for virtually all who have asked, leaving just a handful who will lose their welfare checks.

In Tennessee, 5,000 families have reached that state's 18-month cutoff, but just 800 have had their aid eliminated; the remainder were given reprieves of some sort.

Barbara Myers, of Columbia, S.C., shown with two of her six children, Kelly, 8, left, and Tacorie, 3, has hit the cutoff date for welfare benefits but is getting an extension. (Debbie Morello – For The Post)
In Connecticut, of the 22,548 families who have hit the 21-month limit, 14,499 have requested extensions, and more than half of those have been granted. Most of those lopped off the caseload lost their benefits because they were earning too much in jobs.

"It's not surprising many states are essentially saying to themselves, 'We have achieved a lot of what we set out to do. . . . Now we are at a point where we can be reasonable and make decisions on a case-by-case basis,' " said Mary Jo Bane, a Harvard University professor and former head of welfare programs at the Department of Health and Human Services.

This approach represents a significant shift in philosophy: As the number of families on welfare has fallen dramatically -- a drop of one-third over the past two years -- there is less pressure to follow a hard line for everyone on public assistance. In effect, states can emphasize effort over results; they can be unyielding with recipients who don't attempt to find work by cutting them off as punishment, but easy on anyone who tries to follow the rules, even if it doesn't produce a job. In many states, those who refuse to look for work, attend meetings with caseworkers or take other steps to improve their prospects have been kicked off welfare long before their time limits have been reached.

But the mild impact of the time limits has inspired a new debate among welfare officials.

On one side are those who continue to see the policies as the ultimate teeth in welfare reform -- without a ticking clock and an incontrovertible deadline, they argue, recipients could simply continue to depend on government aid indefinitely.

"People know the rules of the game when they go into the game: You have two years to begin to put your life together," said Claire McIntire, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance. Given the help that recipients get from the state, she said, "We think two years is enough."

In Massachusetts, the December deadline is expected to affect about 5,000 families. Although the state says it will waive the restriction for some, McIntire insists that "we are not primarily in the extension business or the waiver business. We are in the job business."

Barbara Myers, who got an extension of her welfare benefits, with Kelly and Taconie. (Debbie Morello – For The Post)
Other officials argue that a stopwatch should not be clicked off arbitrarily, especially when people are making an effort to improve their lives but, for a variety of reasons, remain stuck in poverty.

Don Winstead, Florida's welfare director, said the time limit should be used as "a motivator to get people to exit assistance, not to punish people who do their part. If they do what we ask them to do but haven't yet been successful and they need more time, that's what we need to provide them."

Winstead said the bottom line is how few people have reached the deadline: Of 151,000 Florida families affected by the time limit two years ago, 120,000 have left the rolls. Officials believe most of those people have gotten jobs or left voluntarily. Those who refused to cooperate have been kicked off. Now, less than 1 percent of the original number are reaching the limit.

"What you're seeing is that most people, in a relatively good economy, have done their part and have been able to get off assistance, and most who haven't will be able to qualify for at least a short-term extension," he said.

When Congress enacted a dramatic revision of the nation's welfare system two years ago, it not only created a lifetime, five-year limit on benefits but also allowed states to set shorter deadlines, and 23 states did so.

During the congressional debate, opponents feared that the limits would become a sheer cliff over which thousands of families would fall, losing their only means of support.

And academic researchers, relying on historical patterns of welfare use, produced a startling estimate: 1 million people would lose benefits when the federal five-year limit expired beginning in 2001, with similar numbers for several years after.

Looking back, experts say they did not anticipate the combined effect of a robust economy and the reaction the new rules sparked in welfare families, many of whom responded by finding jobs or supporting themselves in other ways.

But even as that has inspired states to ease off their earlier tough line on time limits, it may have created a new problem: When a federal lifetime limit hits in five years, just 20 percent of the caseload can be exempted, a much more restricted policy than states are following now.

For now, a forgiving mood has taken hold.

South Carolina, for example, has whittled down a pool of 28,382 "employable" adults to just 512 who remain on the rolls as the time clock expires. More than 5,000 recipients lost their aid for failing to cooperate, others simply decided not to stay on welfare, given its new requirements, and many others got jobs.

"Some of this has to do with the strong economy, but I suspect there's also some kind of psychological change taking place among welfare recipients and people working in the welfare system," said Jim Clark, state director of social services.

Of those who remain on the rolls, about 150 will receive extensions.

Among them is Barbara Myers, 42, a single mother of six in Columbia, S.C., who has been on and off welfare for about five years. She works part-time in a nursing home taking care of Alzheimer's patients, but doesn't earn enough to support her family.

"The two-year time limit is a little short for me," she said. For many recipients, "two years is not enough time to get up to speed for a real job."

She's a model recipient, praying every time she goes into the welfare office that God will continue to help her. And with Larry, 15; India, 13; Kelly, 8; and Tacorie, 3; still at home, Myers is nonetheless working 9 to 2, longing to continue working part-time, even though she knows she needs the money from full-time employment with benefits. "I prefer not to work all those hours away from my family," she said. "I think the more time we spend together, the better children we have."

"I think my caseworker recommended that I get an extension to give me a second chance," she said.

Barbara Coles, a welfare supervisor, said Myers will get at least another three months before she's cut off. "With four children, she could not make it," Coles said.

But not every recipient has been so cooperative.

Jacquie Muir, a supervisor in Charleston, S.C., said she knows exactly who on her caseload has been trying to find work by taking advantage of training and searching for employment.

"With a lot, we try to explain, 'These are your months. The clock is ticking,' " she said. "We try to emphasize to save these months, like having money in the bank. But sometimes, people just tell us, 'It's my time, and I'm going to use it.' "

Not all states are providing easy extensions.

In Arizona, for example, where recipients lose a portion of their welfare check after two years on the rolls, the state has granted just 13 percent of the requests for extensions.

In Virginia, officials have granted virtually no extensions to the 545 families who have lost benefits. Virginia was one of the first states to implement a two-year time limit on benefits and has followed a relatively tough line. By comparison, District recipients won't reach their first time limit until 2002.

In Maryland, nearly 16,000 recipients are slated to lose their welfare checks Jan. 1, but the deadline applies only to those who refuse to participate in "work activities," which can be training, drug treatment or community service.

In Massachusetts, another tough-minded state, Brockton resident Linda Guerrero is within two months of hitting a time limit.

Before her son was born seven months ago, Guerrero worked in a chemical factory but still was receiving about $80 a month in welfare benefits. As a result, her time limit clock was ticking, and now she has no reason to think she will get an extension.

"I don't believe they can really kick off all these mothers. I don't think they have enough shelters," Guerrero said. "It will just hurt the children."

Desperation and disarray describe her life. Her oldest daughter was kidnapped by the child's abusive father and never seen again. The father of her second has been unable to reenter the United States after returning to the Dominican Republic. The father of her infant son is caught in a four-year immigration backlog and can't get working papers.

She uses towels as diapers when she has nothing else. She looks in trash dumpsters hoping to find infant formula. She begs furniture companies to look the other way when they toss out damaged mattresses.

But Guerrero is unwilling to work, despite a degree as a licensed practical nurse and plenty of experience. Now, since her daughter was kidnapped, Guerrero is terrified of taking her other children to day care.

"I can't do a full-time job and come home tired and stressed and raise three kids," she said. "I think they should let me just be a mom."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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