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Many on Welfare in Delaware Failed to Meet Reform Rules
Penalty Rate Is Higher Than Expected

By Judith Havemann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 6, 1998; Page A05

Nearly half of the families subject to one of the nation's earliest welfare reform efforts failed to meet the law's requirements and were penalized financially, according to social scientists who evaluated the plan.

The study of the welfare program in Delaware – one of the first states to require that recipients look for work, immunize their children and send them to school regularly – found that 49 percent of the state's caseload had their welfare checks cut during the first year that the law was enacted in order to induce compliance.

Overall the recipients in the new program, called A Better Chance (ABC), got more jobs and made better wages than poor families who stayed in the old welfare system without the rigorous rules and sanctions.

"While we cannot yet declare that `A Better Chance' is an unqualified success, this early study shows that our welfare reform program is working," Gov. Thomas R. Carper (D) said yesterday.

The percentage of recipients who were forced to pay financial penalties was higher than the state had anticipated, but Delaware officials called it "fair" and not too harsh.

"Our regulations are not easy to comply with," said Gloria Upshur, deputy director of the Delaware Division of Social Services. "But a lot of things in life are tough. Getting up and going to work every day is tough. People who are not on welfare do not have the option of not being self-sufficient."

The study, a rigorous evaluation of the first 18 months of Delaware's plan by the research firm Abt Associates Inc. helps to answer one of the chief questions of welfare reform: whether the plummeting caseloads across the country are a result of reforms or merely a booming economy.

Delaware's caseloads have fallen about 20 percent since the program was implemented in 1995. Many critics of welfare reform have said that the large drop in welfare rolls throughout the country might have occurred anyway because of the robust economy.

But Delaware divided its welfare recipients into two groups – one group operating under the new ABC program, and one under the old program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Both groups were studied during the same economic conditions.

Correction (ran Jan. 7)
The earnings of welfare recipients in Delaware were incorrectly reported. Recipients covered by a new state welfare plan earned an average of $1,214 during a three-month period; those remaining in the traditional welfare system earned $1,047 during the same time.
The ABC clients were working at a 24 percent higher rate than those who remained in the old welfare program. At the same time, their average total wages over a year's time were $1,214 compared with $1,047 for the AFDC group – a difference of $167 or 16 percent.

Delaware requires its recipients to look for work or attend job training programs, and to sign a contract promising to send their children to school and have them immunized. Parents who failed to comply with the work requirements lost one-third of their welfare check for each violation and faced a $50 penalty for failing to meet the other parental responsibility requirements. A family of three in Delaware receives a welfare check of $338 a month.

Researchers said that while the penalty rates were high, they were not unprecedented even under previous reform efforts.

"There is no way of knowing how many of these people dropped off the rolls because they were already working on the side," said Douglas Besharov, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Some studies in other states, he added, have shown that sanctions were wrongly imposed and overturned on appeal.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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