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Eight questions to ask about welfare reforms.

States have money. They have flexibility. But many are still struggling with how to use them to overcome the challenges remaining in welfare reform. Here are the questions legislators need to ask.

It's midterm examination time for welfare reform. Federal reforms created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant in August 1996. Most state legislatures had adopted major reforms before that, and now every state has a new system focused on work. They've added time limits, work requirements and new sanctions while expanding support services to help recipients find and

keep jobs.

These kinds of reforms have been in place for over a year now, and it's time to take a look at how they are working.


There are a number of good signs. Welfare policy has focused on helping recipients find jobs. In most places, expectations are clear: Cash assistance is temporary. Job search requirements, work participation requirements and time limits reinforce this new message.

Along with the emphasis on work, states also have recognized the necessity of helping clients overcome barriers that have kept them from employment such as child care and transportation.

Welfare agencies also have new partners. Some states made welfare part of their employment and labor agencies. In others, welfare and employment offices are located together. In many states, economic development, transportation and education departments have joined welfare agencies in helping recipients find jobs and keep them. New relations also have been forged between welfare programs and businesses and community organizations. States have contracted with local nonprofits to help train and place clients. And local employers are often asked what kinds of training are needed.

Helped by the strong economy in most states, many people have left the rolls for work. Nationwide, caseloads have dropped by more than 40 percent - that's 2 million families.


The news is not all good, however. In several states, caseloads have stopped dropping or have started drifting up. In some places, reforms have not penetrated to the welfare office. Caseworkers still focus on determining eligibility and offer little assistance to clients looking for jobs or seeking help to overcome mental health or domestic violence problems.

And the caseload drop cannot be seen just as good news. While many recipients have found jobs, they usually earn $6 to $7 an hour. And many other families have left the rolls without jobs, raising questions about how they can support their families and whether they can sustain that support. In most states, officials do not even know what percentage of these people are working or what they are earning.

Finally, there's a dilemma in welfare financing. The bad news is that states have resources they are not using. They are still struggling with the flexibility that the new system gives them and almost every state has welfare money it hasn't yet spent. The good news is that most states have resources available to continue strengthening their programs. The structure of the TANF block grant puts states' welfare programs in a good financial position. States must maintain their spending to obtain the full federal block grant and both state funds and the grant must be spent on welfare programs for poor families. But states have great flexibility in how they spend that money, both in designing their programs and expanding what they want to do.


In examining their welfare programs, legislators should ask welfare officials several key questions. They should look hard at the answers they get because those answers will show where legislators and other policymakers need to direct their attention.

1. How do caseworkers deal with applicants and recipients?

When clients walk into a welfare office, do they hear about eligibility for cash assistance-or about work? Are they treated as passive recipients of services or as active job seekers who need help? Are they discouraged from completing their application or are they encouraged to find a job and take advantage of the services they need to work? Do caseworkers process their applications or connect them with child care, car repair or job training services they need? Do workers tell the clients to get jobs or do they work with them to develop an employment strategy?

Answers to these questions will determine how successfully welfare programs will meet the needs of poor families. Clients should receive a clear message about work, an assessment of the challenges they face and access to services to overcome those challenges.

Changing the culture and operation of welfare offices requires three elements:

* Sending a clear message to caseworkers that their primary job is to help clients find employment and become self-sufficient.

* Training to reinforce that message and give caseworkers the required skills to become employment counselors.

* Changing offices to fit the needs of working clients, such as reduced waiting times and Saturday hours.

* Giving caseworkers access to the resources and programs that help clients and an understanding of the broad flexibility they have.

Policymakers should not underestimate the difficulty of accomplishing this change in offices that have long focused on determining eligibility and detecting fraud. They should also not underestimate the importance of doing so.

2. Are effective programs in place to help hard-to-serve recipients?

Although most states have started working on these challenges, few have adequate programs in place to respond to the needs. As they develop solutions, policymakers will need to increase investments to set up these programs on the scale necessary for the populations in their states.

Before recent reforms, welfare programs focused on those most likely to find jobs. These programs often ignored clients with substance abuse or domestic violence problems, learning disabilities, limited work experience or education, or mental illness. Across the country, agencies are experimenting with a variety of approaches, trying to adapt them to focus on preparing clients facing great difficulties.

3. Does the state plan deal with recipients keeping jobs and getting better jobs and finding work in rural areas and city centers? Will it survive an economic downturn?

When welfare reform began, agencies were told, "Get recipients into jobs." States focused on work requirements, up-front job searches, accelerated work preparation, and moving recipients from training programs into jobs. But legislators had higher goals. They wanted to keep people working and have them advance so they could support their families without assistance. They also wanted to make sure there were jobs available for those who lived in rural areas or city centers and that former welfare recipients not fall back on to the rolls in an economic downturn.

In response, states have developed a variety of new programs. They have mentoring programs to help people cope with the new requirements of a job. Some have started training and education programs linked with jobs so that workers can develop new skills and move up to better paying employment. Welfare agencies are working with economic development agencies to increase the number of jobs all over the state. Several states pay subsidies to employers who hire welfare recipients, and others provide loans and training so that recipients can start their own businesses. Some states are using TANF and welfare-to-work money to set up parenting and employment programs for low-income, noncustodial fathers so they can contribute both emotionally and financially to their children. Several states are extending eligibility for child care, job training and transportation to families whose low income puts them at risk of needing welfare.

4. Are other agencies involved?

Many other agencies can help advance welfare reform. The list is substantial - community colleges, schools, transportation, labor and employment offices, economic and work force development and health, to name the most prominent. Some states formally incorporated them. Arkansas placed the directors of these state agencies on the advisory council for their reforms. Employment offices run one-stop centers for job search and training in many states. Oregon and Florida charge their community colleges with developing training programs aimed at jobs where openings are likely to increase and pay more than minimum wage. Iowa and Tennessee use public health nurses to check on families who leave welfare.

Active collaboration has come slowly in many states. Most agencies do not see helping welfare recipients as a central part of their mission, and many have resisted cooperation. Where useful participation is missing, legislatures through their oversight and appropriations roles can be critical in helping other agencies see the value of taking on new responsibility for contributing to reforms.

5. Have welfare officials used business leaders and community organizations to identify and provide jobs, education and training?

If jobs are the answer to the challenge of welfare reform, employers must be in the picture somewhere. Oddly enough, this has been a revelation to many welfare programs. More states are starting to pay attention to employers - contacting them to identify job opportunities and consulting them in designing training programs. A recent survey by the Urban Institute reports that most employers are interested in hiring welfare recipients, particularly given their current difficulty in finding good entry-level workers. They are looking for "reliable workers with positive attitudes." Most employers surveyed were unaware of subsidies or tax credits for hiring welfare recipients. More than financial incentives, employers say they want welfare agencies to train recipients to be reliable and to help them screen applicants.

Several states have brought employers formally into their welfare programs. Florida's local programs are run by boards that, by law, must consist of a majority of citizens with business and management experience. Arkansas established local coalitions to help the agency engage business leaders in designing and contracting for training programs and employment services. Many other states have worked to include business in less formal ways.

States have also reached out to community organizations such as the United Way, Goodwill Industries and neighborhood associations. Many of these organizations provide a range of welfare-to-work services - the Local Investment Commission in Kansas City, Mo., the Urban League in Baltimore and Washington Works in Washington state. In Milwaukee, four nonprofit collaboratives and one for-profit company provide the full range of services. States have found that these organizations can contribute energy and creativity in attacking problems, knowledge about and connections with the community, and credibility with recipients, community leaders and businesses.

6. What has happened to families no longer on welfare?

States need to know what's happened to those 2 million families who have left the rolls. Many former recipients have found jobs, but many have not. How many former recipients are working? What kinds of jobs are they are getting? How long do they keep jobs? How are those without work supporting their families? What barriers do these families still face in trying to get jobs? Are former recipients moving into better jobs that pay more so they can support their families without assistance? How many families face hardships?

Several states have undertaken studies of families who have left welfare, but only a few have produced useful information. Many states are struggling to find the best approach for conducting these studies. In some cases, they have relied on mail surveys or small telephone surveys that may provide a skewed version of exactly what has happened. These do not provide reliable information about how most families are faring and if reforms are working. Valid studies require careful design and a significant investment. But they provide valuable information that lawmakers need to be able to continue to improve their reforms.

7. Are there protections for children when families leave the welfare rolls?

Many families lost benefits because the parents failed to meet work requirements or did not sign individual responsibility agreements. Several states have set up home visit programs to check on the well-being of the children in these families. The best programs send workers to the homes so if there are concerns, the family can be connected to services such as food banks, domestic violence programs and health services. In extreme cases of serious neglect or abuse, workers can recommend that children be removed from the home.

8. Does the state have TANF money (either the federal block grant or state funds) that is appropriated but not being spent?

Most states have substantial welfare funds they are not spending. Although states see unspent TANF money as a reserve for a future economic downturn, caseloads have dropped so fast that many states are building much larger reserves than they planned.

States still have work to do. They need to develop new programs and expand existing ones. Few states have taken advantage of the flexibility they have to develop new programs; few broadened the population served. Only a handful have spent money outside the traditional welfare categories of cash assistance, child care and employment services. Although some states have been particularly creative in developing transportation solutions - van pools, reverse commutes, car purchase programs and school buses - the same kind of innovations are needed in job retention, wage progression, job training, rural job development and substance abuse treatment.

States risk losing some of the federal block grant if they do not spend it now. Congress repeatedly has raised the possibility of reducing the TANF block grant. Already the White House and Congress have cut the social services block grant and shifted some administrative expenses for food stamps and Medicaid to the states. Even though cutting the TANF block grant would violate the arrangement built into the program, federal officials are likely to think hard about it this session, particularly if states continue to have substantial amounts not spent.

Reducing the grants makes sense if states have finished the work of welfare reform. But they still face critical challenges. It is misleading to focus on the striking caseload reductions as the sole measure of the success of welfare reform. Although states have made remarkable progress, it is unlikely that any state can examine its program and be satisfied that the important work is done.

Jack Tweedie is NCSL's expert on state welfare policies.
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Author:Tweedie, Jack
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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