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Study: Welfare reform has dark side.

Byline: GREG BOLT The Register-Guard

Oregon's welfare-to-work program has succeeded in moving people off public assistance and into low-wage jobs but has failed at reducing poverty, according to the results of a three-year study released Friday at the University of Oregon.

Almost 80 percent of former welfare clients interviewed in two separate surveys reported being employed at some time during the 1998-2000 study period. But the mean take-home pay was barely $1,000 a month, and many people struggled to find affordable child care, health care and housing, the study said.

The study, "Welfare Restructuring, Work & Poverty: Policy Implications from Oregon," was conducted by the UO's Center for the Study of Women in Society with support from the Oregon Department of Human Resources, although its conclusions were the center's own and not the state's. It included initial interviews with 970 randomly selected people who had recently left public assistance programs and follow-up interviews with 756 people from that group over a two-year period.

According to the report, Oregon has a long way to go before it can claim success in reducing poverty. The report's recommendations call on the state to promote more living-wage jobs, improve the safety net for low-income families, offer more child care options, create more affordable housing, provide health care to those who can't afford private insurance and allow those receiving assistance to count education and training toward their job-search requirements.

The report didn't address the cost of such steps, but noted poverty scholar Frances Fox Piven said the welfare programs that existed before reforms were enacted consumed a tiny fraction of state and federal budgets. Piven, a Distinguished Professor of sociology and political science at City University of New York who was in Eugene to take part in a symposium on welfare policy, held the UO's Morse Chair during a yearlong examination of welfare and poverty in 1999-2000.

"The whole complex of programs that make up welfare-to-work are more expensive" than the former welfare program, she said.

Joan Acker, a retired professor of sociology at the UO and co-lead investigator on the study, said that despite claims by state and national proponents that welfare-to-work programs would strengthen families, the effect has been just the opposite. In Oregon, parents, including single mothers, must put their children into day care at the age of 3 months and work long hours away from them to afford child care.

"In spite of their emphasis on families, in fact their emphasis is only on getting families off welfare and getting the parents into the work force, regardless of what the needs of the children may be," Acker said.

That rang true for Laura Hackney, a single mother who was among those surveyed for the study and who attended the meeting announcing its results. Hackney described herself as a "full-time worker, part-time student and part-time mom."

She said she has a 40-hour-a-week job at the university, where she also is a sociology student who spends almost 20 hours a week on classes and studies. That leaves her with little time for her son.

"If you work full-time, you cannot be a full-time parent," she said. "It's just impossible."

Although she has a better-paying job than most people who leave welfare, Hackney said she still must seek help from local food banks. Finding quality day care she can afford has been especially challenging as she tries to get the education she needs for a better life.

"Child care, I think, is one of the hugest problems," she said. "It's just amazing."

One way to help would be raising the poverty line income level, Hackney said. Currently, people with income near the poverty line begin to lose eligibility for much-needed subsidies for child care, health care and housing but don't make enough money to afford such services on their own.

Acker said some of those surveyed reported that they had turned down raises because the increases would disqualify them for subsidies but wouldn't provide enough money to make up for what they would lose in assistance.

The study focused on people who had recently received food stamps or financial assistance through the Temporary Aid for Needy Families program or who had sought aid but did not receive it. A large majority of the respondents were single, white women.

Of those surveyed, almost half had incomes below the federal poverty level. To make ends met, 42 percent reported visiting food banks or receiving food boxes, 80 percent said they paid bills late, 27 percent said they skipped needed medical care and 24 percent said they skipped meals.

Only 13 percent said they had sufficient income to meet their basic needs. Another 40 percent said they were just getting by but had nothing to cover emergencies or unexpected needs and 47 percent said they weren't making it.

Piven said the main effect of welfare reform has been to push up to 3 million women nationwide into the minimum-wage labor pool. And she said that because of the strict work requirements of such programs, women are rarely able to get the training they need to get a better job and escape poverty.

"That has the consequence of loosening the labor market at the very bottom and keeping wages down at the very bottom," she said.

In Oregon, there is evidence that welfare reform has not reduced poverty. According to the Oregon Food Bank, the state has seen a 27 percent increase in the number of emergency food boxes distributed since 1996 and a 23 percent increase in the number of people living below the poverty line.

That's something that's mirrored locally.

"Over the last five years we have tripled the amount of food we have given out," said Dana Turell, communications director for FOOD for Lane County.

CAPTION(S):

Single mother, part-time student, full-time employee Laura Hackney greets son Dante Hackney-Vera after picking him up from day care. "Child care, I think, is one of the hugest problems" for mothers leaving welfare, she said.
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Title Annotation:UO: The emphasis on jobs hasn't helped people out of poverty, researchers say.; Higher Education
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 4, 2002
Words:997
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