Drop in Welfare Rolls
By Barbara Vobejda
Governors across the country are boasting that welfare reform is successfully moving millions of people off the rolls and into jobs. But closer scrutiny of state and federal records shows that tens of thousands of families are being forced off welfare as punishment for not complying with tough new rules.
Federal statistics show that in one three-month period last year, 38 percent of the recipients who left welfare did so because of state sanctions, ordered for infractions from missing appointments with caseworkers to refusing to search for work.
These and other sanction numbers gathered by The Washington Post from welfare offices nationwide are among the earliest statistics available on how the states are implementing the 1996 federal welfare law, which triggered a dramatic revision of public assistance programs.
In some states, sanctions have become a significant part of declining caseloads. More than half of the 14,248 cases closed in Indiana in a three-month period last year, for example, were a result not of people finding work but of sanctions, according to federal records. In Florida, state officials report that 27 percent of the 148,000 cases they closed in the second half of 1997 were because of sanctions.
In the first year of Tennessee's new program, 40 percent of the families leaving welfare nearly 14,000 lost benefits because they did not comply with regulations, compared with 29 percent who left for employment, according to a University of Memphis study.
Nationally, caseloads have fallen by 18 percent in the past year, attributable both to a healthy economy and welfare reform efforts. But the sanction statistics provide a fuller picture of what has generally been cast as the success of welfare overhaul: Not all of those leaving the rolls are converts to the work ethic; a sizable number either are refusing to cooperate or are so hampered by serious problems that they are unable to comply with the new requirements.
State officials say that the high rate of sanctioning is evidence the new law is working as intended, smoking out people who already had jobs but weren't reporting them, or in other cases impressing upon recipients that they can no longer receive aid indefinitely without preparing themselves for work.
But advocates for the poor warn that many states are imposing severe measures that end people's benefits with no assurances that their children will be fed or their houses heated.
Valerie Watson, a Memphis mother who says she has recurring back problems, was cut off welfare last fall for missing training classes and showing up late for an appointment with her caseworker. She gradually sold her belongings as she grew more desperate for money.
"We went through the whole winter with no utilities," she said. "This is a story you wouldn't believe because it has been so rough."
Watson is part of the hidden story behind the tale of welfare success being told across the country. Until the passage of welfare reform legislation, states were hampered from cutting off families for failure to work. Now, 30 state legislatures have given caseworkers the authority to eliminate welfare grants when families fail to cooperate with several new rules, including requirements that recipients search for jobs, volunteer or attend job preparation classes.
"Sanctions are the spur for people to make the move from welfare to work," said New Jersey welfare commissioner William Waldman. "To have a program that wasn't serious, that didn't have consequences or sanctions for not taking a step up in life, was very bad public policy that served to trap people on the rolls. I don't minimize the impact of sanctions, but the alternative is worse."
During the national debate over welfare reform two years ago, many assumed that the moment of truth would come years from now when recipients reached time limits that would end their benefits. But the widespread use of sanctions has moved up that moment.
Energized by their welfare reform programs, states are moving swiftly to put their new sanction power to use. But social service advocates argue that in many cases, states are making bad judgments.
Bill Biggs, a former welfare administrator from Utah, wrote in a recent publication that under a pilot program in his state, half of the sanctions ordered were done in error, often when a caseworker didn't detect that a recipient suffered from mental illness or some other problem.
Nothing illustrates individual states' new discretion and how that produces widely divergent policies more vividly than their approach to sanctions.
New York, for example, prohibits caseworkers from taking a family's entire check for failure to work. In Georgia, families who receive two sanctions are banned for life from receiving assistance, although this has happened in only a handful of cases.
In Alabama, clients can lose their benefits for failing to show up for a single appointment without a good excuse, but they can reapply the next month.
No matter what the state policy, women like Valerie Watson represent a common problem facing caseworkers. In welfare parlance, she is what's known as a hard-to-serve client somebody who hasn't worked in a decade, who tangles with her landlord and the mailman, who lacks transportation and has a history of back problems that she says flare up almost every time she is asked to show up for an appointment or meet a deadline.
A few years ago, during an earlier effort at welfare reform, her caseworker threatened to cut off her welfare check if she didn't go to work. The caseworker "said it was the law that I had to get a job," said Watson, 42. "I asked her to show it to me."
The caseworker gave up.
But in 1996, welfare reform got serious in Tennessee. Watson, who lives in a rented house with her 18-year-old son and a 20-year-old daughter, was soon called in to the Memphis welfare office and handed a "personal responsibility" contract requiring her to attend classes to prepare for work. She was offered the choice of signing the form or losing her check right then. "I signed, but I knew I couldn't attend classes because of my back injury," she said.
Her check was docked 20 percent after she failed to attend any of the eight weeks of daily classes. She appealed, citing her back injury, but missed the hearing; she said she was ill. Eventually, she lost all benefits. When she tried to reopen the case, she was a "little late, about five minutes," she said, and officials sent her home to wait until she heard from them again.
Months passed, with Watson trying to get by without her $142 monthly welfare check. She haunted food pantries and churches, borrowed $1,200 from friends and acquaintances, lost her phone and had her electricity cut off.
Soon she started selling everything she owned: her refrigerator, three gas heaters, the dining room table, her ladder, fans.
Eventually, she sold her stove. She cooks on a grill in the back yard, even in winter. All along, she couldn't comply, she explained, because of her back injury.
She sought legal help, tried to qualify for disability payments, fought eviction and recently got back on the rolls by signing a new personal responsibility agreement.
But Watson said she is already worried: Back pain may once more prevent her from complying.
Classes start at 8 a.m. today.
The problem for caseworkers is how to know whether Watson and other recipients like her are disabled or only in need of a strong push to become independent. In a city where each caseworker handles a minimum of 150 active welfare cases plus an additional 100 miscellaneous clients for food stamps or other benefits it is hard to get to know each recipient well.
"On any given day we can have a 40 to 60 percent no-show rate" said Anola Crunk, a program supervisor in Memphis. Each missed appointment requires a follow-up.
Caseworkers say that even in face-to-face interviews, clients are not always forthcoming about their problems.
State officials and welfare experts say they believe that those who do get cut from the rolls represent the two extremes of the welfare population. At one end are people who are able to find jobs, or have other income, and simply choose not to comply. Officials say they are unlikely to be in desperate straits.
At the other extreme are those unable to meet requirements because they are the most troubled families plagued by mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence or such low reading levels that they have difficulty understanding the new regulations, much less finding work.
A Minnesota study of sanctioned families found they were twice as likely as other welfare recipients to report mental health problems and four times as likely to report substance abuse.
These were the families that authors of welfare reform assumed would be lingering on the rolls for years, the people most likely to be affected by a five-year lifetime limit on benefits included in the 1996 federal law. Instead, they are often the ones being kicked off the rolls now, because they are unable or unwilling to meet requirements.
At the same time, sanctions have worked for some recipients.
Margaret Simpson, 22, a mother of three in Cincinnati, lost her welfare check for seven months after she failed to show up at her state's job readiness program.
"I wasn't paying attention," she said. "There was a letter with my check. Who pays attention to a letter with a check? You pay attention to the check."
But eventually, when the check quit arriving, Simpson complied with the rules by helping her caseworker track down the father of her children to collect child support, working on her high school equivalency test and attending a job-preparation course. A new check is on the way.
"If I would have been under the old law, I would still just be getting a check," she said.
A number of states, including Tennessee, are beginning to track what happens to those who are sanctioned, but only fragmentary evidence is available.
A study of Iowa families who lost their benefits found that about half were working after they left the rolls. University of Memphis researchers found that 80 percent of Tennessee recipients who had lost aid because of sanctions said they had other sources of income.
In Utah, a researcher found that most sanctioned families had income from other sources, but a small group was so disadvantaged she wondered how they would ever land jobs and become self-supporting.
Although states have always closed some welfare cases because of clients' failure to comply, the numbers are increasing and many of the sanctions are bigger and more permanent than ever before.
Rosie Saunders, a 29-year-old mother of twins in Columbus, Ohio, is frantically applying for jobs to avoid being sanctioned.
"I have asthma real bad," she said. "I have two children on [disability]. I had an industrial accident. I have to take pills for depression."
But "I still have to get a job or they are going to cut me," she said. "They told me there was no excuses."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company