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More Ex-Welfare Recipients Are Working but Still Poor

Services: Between 63% and 87% have found jobs, but many still need assistance, data show. Studies cause GOP to claim victory in reform debate.

May 28, 1999|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Former welfare recipients have found jobs at a rate between 63% and 87%, but with few exceptions their earnings do not lift them out of poverty, according to one of the most comprehensive studies to date of those who leave welfare rolls.

Almost three years into welfare reform, those numbers touched off a heated debate over the success of the landmark overhaul, prompting Republicans to declare an early victory and many longtime critics to counsel caution.

The study by the General Accounting Office was one of two released Thursday that provided a snapshot of former welfare recipients who typically work part time, often at several jobs, yet continue in large numbers to rely on government assistance such as Medicaid and food stamps.

Both studies--the other was conducted by the Washington-based Urban Institute--are essentially roundups of assessments conducted in the last two years by several states.

Since the federal government no longer administers the program now known as Temporary Aid to Needy Families and does not track the fate of former recipients nationally, the studies represent the first broad overview of those who have left the rolls under new welfare rules. They also provided the first comprehensive look at welfare reform's success beyond the dramatic decline in caseloads in the last three years.

California, which has not systematically tracked those who leave its welfare rolls, was not among the seven states included in the GAO survey, or among those in the Urban Institute report.

The surveys provided grist for both supporters and opponents of the 1996 welfare overhaul act, which was authored and passed by Republicans and then signed by President Clinton over the opposition of many Democrats.

"While caseload reduction is an important indicator, what's more impressive is that people who have left the rolls are staying gainfully employed and increasing their take-home pay," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "In three short years, we've broken the mold from a lifestyle of generational welfare dependency."

Hastert and several other Republican leaders touted the employment rates of those who left the rolls, as well as data showing that the average number of hours worked by adults in each welfare family is more than 32 hours a week. They also pointed to opinion polls conducted by South Carolina and Wisconsin in which 76% and 68% of former welfare recipients, respectively, disagreed or disagreed strongly with the statement that "life was better when you were getting welfare."

That prompted Rep. Bill Archer (R-Texas) to conclude at a news conference that "welfare recipients' lives are getting better, poverty is going down and more Americans are enjoying the freedom of independence from the chains of welfare."

But opponents of the 1996 law found plenty to criticize in both reports. According to the GAO, Congress' investigative arm, three-month earnings of former recipients were between $2,378 and $3,786--figures which, if computed as annual earnings, would fall below the federal poverty level for most families. Beyond that, many departees--from 19% in Maryland to 30% in Wisconsin--landed back on the rolls in three to 15 months. And many more continued to rely on Medicaid (from 44% to 83% of families) or food stamps (31% to 60%) to make ends meet.

Wendell Primus, a former Clinton administration official who resigned in protest of the welfare reform law, told lawmakers Thursday that many who leave welfare can rely on transitional assistance and sometimes income supplements to keep them afloat. That, he warned, will not last much longer.

"Time limits aren't in effect yet," said Primus, referring to the provision of the law that limited a recipient's lifetime receipt of welfare to no more than 48 months. "The thing I find troubling is that, when the time limits take effect . . . there are some people who are not going to be able to support their families without assistance from the government."

And even some of the law's admirers cautioned lawmakers that the hardest part of welfare reform lies ahead.

"Don't declare victory too soon," said Richard Larson, director of policy, research and systems for the Maryland agency that administers welfare. "We still have to see what happens" when the economy turns down, he said.

Although welfare rolls have plummeted, Larson said, the recipients who remain dependent on public aid tend to have the most serious obstacles to overcome before they can support themselves, including high rates of domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness and depression.

"This group is going to present a formidable challenge," Larson said.

The reports come a day after the Senate rejected by one vote a bid to have the federal government track the well-being of those who leave the welfare rolls. The proposal, authored by Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), would have created a portrait of former recipients. Under the 1996 law, the states may use part of their federal welfare block grants to study the fate of those who leave the rolls. But because it is expensive and difficult to do so, most do not.

That led Rep. Pete Stark (D-Hayward), an outspoken critic of the 1996 law, to charge: "We don't want to know what happened to those people who left the rolls. We just want to reduce the caseloads. Ignorance is bliss."

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