Tina Taylor was a model of what welfare reform was supposed to do.
Taylor, 44, a single mother, had spent six years on public assistance. After 1996, when changes were made in welfare law to push people into work, she got a job that paid $400 a week and allowed her family to live independently. For the first time in a long time, she could afford to clothe and feed her two children, and even rent a duplex on the beach in Norfolk.
After losing her job last year, however, Taylor has been unable to find full-time work in an economy that still has a million fewer jobs than it did at the start of a brief recession more than three years ago.
She is back in poverty. But she hasn't gone back on welfare.
Her story illustrates a seeming paradox in the U.S. economy: Though the number of welfare recipients continues to decline, poverty rates -- particularly for single mothers and children -- have surged in recent years. Just last month, the government reported that the number of people on welfare had declined by 149,000 at the end of 2003 compared with 2002, while the number in poverty rose by 1.3 million. Those divergent trends offer fresh ammunition to both sides in the debate over whether, eight years after the fact, welfare reform is working.
Nationally, fewer than half of the families eligible for welfare received it in 2001, the most recent year for which statistics are available, compared with roughly 80 percent before the 1996 legislation. Reform supporters say that is exactly what the changes were meant to accomplish -- recasting welfare as a last resort instead of a crutch. "What is happening is that people are making do, without having to go back on welfare," said Douglas J. Besharov, a University of Maryland professor and resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
But some advocates for the poor say cases like Taylor's show that families are not getting the assistance they need at a time when a good job -- or any job -- can be hard to find. "The same people who fall through the employment net now also fall through the welfare net," said Ellen Bravo, outgoing director of the Milwaukee advocacy group 9to5, National Association of Working Women.
In Taylor's case, she mistakenly thought that if she enrolled in welfare, she would have to give up her child-support payments. No one at the social services office told her about a recent policy change that would entitle her to welfare benefits and child support, she said. For more than a year, her family lived in what the census defines as "deep" poverty -- earning less than half the poverty level of $14,824 for an adult supporting two children. In Taylor's case, she was getting by on about $217 a month in child support and $274 in food stamps.
"I worked my way out of poverty," said Taylor, recalling the days when she had a degree of financial independence. "Now I'm all the way at the bottom again."
Bravo said stories like Taylor's are not uncommon. The state welfare agencies that administer the program, she said, have an incentive to keep people off the rolls because they're striving to meet targets for reducing their caseloads. "The program was designed with a premium put on getting people off the rolls. The idea was ending welfare rather than ending poverty; reducing caseloads rather than reducing suffering," she said.
The 1996 reform, which was passed by a Republican Congress and signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton, ended the federal entitlement to welfare benefits and transformed the system into a series of state-run programs funded by U.S. government grants. The new programs imposed limits on the amount of time recipients could stay on welfare -- generally two consecutive years, or five over a lifetime. They also required many recipients to look for work or participate in training programs before they could receive their checks. In the first few years after the law passed, as the economy moved toward full employment in the late 1990s, millions left the welfare rolls for jobs.
There were 4.9 million people on welfare at the end of 2003, down 3 percent from the year before and less than half the 12.2 million total from August 1996. The poverty rate also dropped in the first few years after the legislation's passage, from 13.7 percent in 1996 to 11.3 percent in 2000.
But since 2001, even as the welfare rolls declined, the poverty rate has increased, climbing to 12.5 percent last year, or 35.9 million people. Of those, 12.9 million were children. The number of families in deep poverty rose 10 percent, to 3.2 million in 2003. The percentage of single-mother families living in poverty also jumped, to 28 percent from a recent low of 25.4 percent in 2000.
Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, said the rise in poverty can be traced to a poor job market coupled with a social safety net that doesn't do enough to help those who can't find work. Mishel said public assistance has been shifted away from helping the jobless with welfare and toward giving a boost to those working in low-income jobs through programs like the earned-income tax credit. That's fine when the economy produces millions of new jobs, he said, but not when it's sputtering. "You can imagine welfare reform as a fair-weather ship," Mishel said. "It does okay at 4 percent unemployment, but not very well when you're in a recession."
The Bush administration disagrees, arguing that the safety net has changed, not disintegrated. The old system, said Assistant Secretary for Children and Families Wade F. Horn, "systematically seduced people into generations of welfare dependence." The new system, by contrast, gives people who have been laid off a temporary lift until they are able to get back into the job market, he said. "When you become part of the economic mainstream, the safety net for you is not cash welfare. It's unemployment insurance," Horn said.
He said Bush wants further welfare reform through a reauthorization of the 1996 law that would implement tougher work requirements and encourage welfare recipients to take full-time, not part-time jobs. Horn said full-time work is more likely to lift people out of poverty, but the legislation has been bottled up in Congress. Horn blamed Senate Democrats for the delay.
One Senate Democrat, presidential nominee John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, has been among those pushing for the legislation to include more money for child care. Allison Dobson, a Kerry campaign spokeswoman, said Bush's proposals do little good at a time when full-time jobs are scarce. "The best way to help families that are struggling is to get them a job. And that's one thing the president has been unable to do," she said.
Horn said this year's positive job numbers, which picked up considerably in the spring before stalling over the summer, will likely cause a decline in poverty for 2004.
But some advocates for low-income workers doubt that poverty will fall as long as the kinds of jobs being created lack adequate pay and benefits. "The real issue is whether the people who come off the rolls and go to work can support their families," said Beth Shulman, author of "The Betrayal of Work." Shulman said that without an increase in the minimum wage and more flexible leave-of-absence laws, some parents aren't going to be able to make work pay off, so they will turn to public assistance.
And when they do, many will be persuaded to keep looking elsewhere. "The states are trying to discourage people in every way they can from going on welfare," Besharov said. "The level of hassle, the level of 'do you really, really, really want to get on welfare?' has increased." Besharov said that strategy encourages people to consider other sources of support first and helps end a cycle of dependence.
But Bravo also sees self-interest at play for states that aren't receiving enough money from the federal government and feel compelled to pinch pennies. Instead of seeking to help those in need, she said, many state agencies are following an informal "don't ask, don't tell" policy by which they don't inform people that they are eligible for assistance unless they are specifically asked. "The [welfare] agencies are worried about not having enough money," she said. "They put pressure on the people who are applying. And as a result, people are being sent away who shouldn't be."
Mark Golden, who administers the welfare program in Virginia, said his state does not intentionally discourage people from receiving benefits. But he acknowledged that some people inevitably slip through the cracks because of the number of applications caseworkers have to handle. "They're inundated," he said. "I wouldn't say it's linked to welfare reform. That kind of thing is probably more linked to workload."
Golden said Virginia has made changes since welfare reform was passed that give people more access to benefits, not less. He pointed to a rule enacted last year that allows parents receiving child support to continue getting payments even after they sign up for welfare. Previously, they were forced to choose between the two.
Taylor said she was never informed of the new rule. "They go through everything and at 100 miles per hour, send you back out the door," she said. "If they had told me, I would have [enrolled]. Who's going to pass up help?"
She certainly could have used it. For several months, she and her youngest child were homeless -- bouncing around from couch to couch at friends' homes and trying in vain to make their food stamps stretch to the end of each month.
More recently, they've been living at Taylor's boyfriend's home in Williamsburg.
A part-time, $7-an-hour job at a grocery store helped for a while. But that didn't last either: When she failed to show up on a weekend that she had told her boss she could not work, she was fired.
Taylor wants to stay off welfare and reclaim the feeling of independence she had learned to love. That's not possible unless she finds work soon. To tide her family over, she is helping her boyfriend with his home-improvement business and creating artwork to sell at flea markets.
But as soon as she can, she plans to go to the local social services office to look for a job that will provide a steady paycheck. And while she is there, she will fill out an application to go back on welfare.