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Welfare Reform Still on a Roll as States Bounce It Down to Counties

By Judith Havemann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 29 1997; Page A19

As the last state wrapped up its legislative battle over welfare yesterday, it became clear that lawmakers around the country are passing down new responsibilities for the poor from the governors' offices to counties and other local jurisdictions.

A year ago, the federal government transferred authority over welfare to the states, and after nine months of legislative battles, several states have now handed it off once again.

The North Carolina legislature, which was preparing to end its longest session in history last night, gave as many as 30 counties the authority to determine the size of welfare checks, who qualifies and how strict the work requirements will be.

Legislatures in Colorado, Ohio, Maryland, Wisconsin, New York and California also turned over authority for parts of their welfare programs to local officials, according to a survey by the National Association of State Legislatures. While North Carolina appears to have gone the farthest, all the states that chose to decentralize have given counties both new responsibilities and new threats of financial penalties if their innovations fail.

The handoff of power from states is reminiscent of what happened at the federal level more than a year ago. "It's so similar that I keep saying states instead of counties," when describing the phenomenon, said Jack Tweedie, director of the children and families program at the association.

The new devolution would invest county supervisors and commissioners with unprecedented authority, giving them the ability to design programs uniquely tailored to the needs of their welfare clients, and to end the one-size-fits-all programs that were widely criticized during the welfare reform debate last year.

But it could also make it possible in North Carolina for counties to slash benefits to drive out their welfare recipients, or in other states to provide educational and intensive job assistance services in one place, and not in another.

"Poor people tend to be concentrated in [regions of] states that don't have the resources to take care of them," said Mary Jo Bane, a Harvard University professor who resigned in protest as President Clinton's top policy official on welfare.

In North Carolina, after a battle that dragged on for months, the legislature agreed to a pilot program that will test the idea of giving about a third of the state's counties complete flexibility to run their own welfare programs.

"North Carolina is a very diverse state," said state Rep. Cherie Berry, chairman of the House welfare reform committee. "If we have a statewide benefit we are shortchanging the urban areas and overpaying in the rural."

Under the law, counties would be given financial incentives to develop their unique welfare programs. They would be allowed to take 10 percent of the money that they have historically spent on welfare and devote it to something else, such as tax relief. If they succeed in meeting the work requirements and other goals of the program, that amount would be increased to 20 percent in 1999. The counties' individual plans must be approved as a package in a session next summer by the legislature.

Bobby Boyd, director of social services in Catawba County, a booming area of 130,000 in the west central part of the state, said that his county commissioners were interested in becoming a pilot county, "not to change the statewide eligibility requirements very much, but to tweak them."

For example, he said, beneficiaries usually are given three opportunities to meet requirements for job searches or training before they are penalized. "If someone is legitimately having problems, that is one thing," he said. "But if you have someone who is using the system – and you normally know that – we need the flexibility to say `no.' There is a job out there for you."

Other states, including Colorado, Ohio, California and New York, have set statewide benefit and eligibility standards and told counties to design plans to meet the tough federal work requirements using state guidelines.

As part of their plans:

Ohio is requiring each county to devise a plan to get welfare recipients into jobs. Counties that meet their goals will be eligible for more money from the state. The state will absorb half of any penalties that might be assessed by Washington. The rest will be borne entirely by the counties that fail to meet their goals.

California is creating a plan that would reward counties for getting recipients into jobs, but only if they stay employed for at least six months. If they don't, they face a penalty.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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