Since federal welfare reform was passed in 1997, a whole new attitude toward public assistance has developed. Today, welfare recipients must earn cash benefits by going to work - and in Ohio there is a three-year lifetime cap on those benefits.That's a far cry from the days when some families lived their entire lives on the welfare system. But while the number of people on the welfare rolls has dropped dramatically in the last two and a half years, many still remain dependent on welfare benefits. And some experts worry that welfare reforms may create a new underclass of poverty. Has welfare reform really worked? As we conclude our year-long look at the Changing Face of Welfare, Karen Schaefer brings us this report on what's been accomplished - and what still remains to be done.
Karen Schaefer- In theory, it was a simple idea. Reform the welfare system by making cash benefits dependent on getting a job and by placing a lifetime limit on those benefits. A year ago, when we first began to look at how the system was working, we discovered there were problems.Two and a half years into the state's Ohio Works First welfare reform program, John Allen of the Ohio Department of Human Services says there are significant successes to celebrate.
John Allen- "The amount of people receiving cash assistance is down about 40% from October, 1997."
KS- In fact, since 1997, nearly 160,000 people in Cuyahoga County have left the welfare rolls, most of them for jobs.But some 260,000 remain. And in October, the first of those will hit Ohio's three-year lifetime limit for cash assistance. Allen says counties are well aware of the deadline.
JA- "...at that time county departments of human services will have to make decisions about whether those families are able to continue to receive benefits - because counties are able to exempt a percentage of their population from time limits - or whether cash benefits run out for those individuals...there are two counties in the state - Cuyahoga and Summit - that will not have the capacity...to be able to exempt everyone who may potentially face time limits."
KS- While counties may exempt up to 20 percent of their clients, critics say that's not enough. Sue Perlmutter is an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University's Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences. She says the families with children that still remain on welfare have the most barriers to employment.
Sue Perlmutter- "I think the issue...is one of barriers not having been recognized...Cuyahoga is going to have to be faced with those kinds of decisions. And the decisions...I think they become very crucial when you realize that there is a significant connection between the child welfare system and the public welfare system. When you cut people off of public welfare there is a heightened chance that their children will be lost to them..."
KS- Cuyahoga County Commissioners have also expressed concern about who will care for children if their parents cannot. In addition to the transitional benefits offered through Ohio Works First - benefits without time limits such as food stamps, health insurance for children, and child care vouchers - the county has contracted with a safety net of other service providers to help support working families through neighborhood work and training centers. Perlmutter says a recent study by Case Western Reserve University revealed that even people leaving welfare for work don't take advantage of help that could keep them working.
SP- "I think that in order for the system to work well, people need to understand both their rights and their responsibilities. And it's clear to me, from what I hear in the community, that people don't understand."
KS- But better communication is just one of the issues that still need to be resolved. Perlmutter says there is currently no plan in Cuyahoga County to give housing assistance to families that lose their cash assistance. And while the economy is healthy now, Perlmutter says the Case Western study shows that most working families are earning at or below the poverty level.
SP- "If we assume that we're going to lose a little bit on the economy, I think that if we don't continue to change and adapt this system, we will see evidence of what is being called in the literature extreme poverty...And I worry about those families and their children."
KS- Others are worried, too. Just last week State Representative Dale Miller of Cleveland introduced a new bill that would extend Ohio's lifetime welfare benefits from three years to five.
Dale Miller- "The pendulum has swung just a little bit too far...It makes no sense to say ...we're going to play hardball with the people that are not quite making it in this economy. I just think that's the wrong attitude...We can easily do the five year limit and afford those who are having a little bit more difficulty overcoming the barriers to employment in their life to give them a chance to make their life work."
KS- Miller says the additional benefits would probably cost the state about $15 million a year.That could be paid for out of a one billion dollar state rainy day fund that may otherwise return to Washington when federal welfare reform legislation expires in 2002. But even state human services officials agree that it may be years before we understand the real outcome of welfare reform. For INFOHIO, I'm Karen Schaefer in Cleveland.