Untangling the Knot of Welfare Reform

Bill Rice- About 3500 families in Cuyahoga county will reach their three-year limit on welfare cash benefits on October 1st. These are some of the toughest cases, according to some county officials - those with the poorest job skills, drug and alcohol problems, criminal histories, sick or disabled relatives who can't be left alone. Ralph Johnson, who heads the county's Work in Training Program, says these families are the focus of his agency's current push as the deadline approaches.

Ralph Johnson- We're having face to face discussions with each family at risk of losing their benefits. We're having additional meetings with them to make sure that they're thinking about what they have to do in these next few months in order to ensure they'll be able to provide for themselves and their families, and hopefully they'll be able to do that before they exhaust their benefits.

BR- Johnson declined to say what will happen to those who do exhaust their benefits. He insists, as other officials do, that making exceptions to the three-year limit rule is not part of the county's plan.

RJ- There are those who would advocate us - because the law says we can - setting some of these families aside, and saying their family issues or personal situations are so difficult there is nothing we can do to help them. I have to say we are just unwilling to do that.

BR- That philosophy was emphasized recently by Cuyahoga County Council President Jane Campbell. She made welfare reform a cornerstone of her state-of-the-county address earlier this month.

Jane Campell- We made some clear decisions. We rejected the notion that people on welfare are flawed and unable. No one had tried to work with these families, to find their strengths and help them move into the workforce. We were going to try. We said we expect everyone to succeed....

BR- But the notion that no families will find themselves without means of support when the deadline passes, is far-fetched, according to some. Thomas Brock is a researcher at the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp in New York City, which is tracking and evaluating welfare reform in a number of cities, including Cleveland. Brock says the federal welfare reform law allows exempting up to 20% of welfare cases from the time limit if there appears to be hardships or unusual circumstances. He says to his knowledge neither the county nor the state had made any decisions on whether or how to use that exemption.

Thomas Brock- I think they are very concerned about sending a message that the time limits are not real because they're proceeding as though they are, so that's part of it. I think Ohio and other states are struggling with this issue, as is the federal government, to get a better handle on how many might really be affected by the time limits, what are the special circumstances, how much more time do people need, and there are not good answers to those questions yet.

BR- Nevertheless, Brock gives the county high marks for its welfare reform efforts, saying the level of support it provides to assist people in finding and holding onto a job is higher than in other communities it's looking at in its study of urban welfare reform.

In her state of the county address Commission President Jane Campbell said that support is necessary to not just eliminate dependency on welfare, but to accomplish what she refers to as the next initiative - helping people move up the economic ladder.

JC- Some communities say their goal is just to end the welfare - take them off the rolls and then we'll forget about them. We don't think that's good enough, we want to be about the business of helping those families move out of poverty.

BR- Campbell said the county will continue to work with former welfare recipients after they've secured a job. She said a big part of that is making sure they take advantage of benefits and services still available to them after they've left the welfare rolls

This is Bill Rice for 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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