The Denver Post (Colorado)
By: Tina Griego
January 22, 2012
Reform of welfare not a poverty cure
Seven women, all welfare recipients, met last week in the Denver County Department of Human Services for an employment training class. One lesson learned after welfare reform passed in 1996 was that helping welfare recipients find work is not the same thing as helping them keep work. This puzzle has a lot of moving pieces.
Their instructor, Fred Podmore, likens starting a new job with traveling to China for the first time. How do you prepare? You'd think the analogy a stretch, but Podmore makes it work, and the women are eager students.
I keep hearing the Republican presidential candidates laud welfare reform as a tool that lifted people from poverty and the model for food stamps and Medicaid. One thing should be made clear: Welfare reform hasn't lifted people from poverty. Nor was that its intention.
The goal was to get people off the dole and into the workforce. There's a reason our state's own program is called Colorado Works. The assumption seemed to be that if people work, they'd make their way out of poverty.
I have no problem with the goal of getting people to work. I have no problem with imposing time limits on welfare benefits for those who can work in an economy that offers work. Self-sufficiency creates powerful tangible and intangible benefits to individual and society.
No, I have a problem with equating welfare reform with any kind of serious effort to address poverty in this country. And, for that matter, with the implication that those on food stamps do not work when in fact that extra help is the only thing keeping many workers in their $9.25 an hour jobs and off welfare. I have a problem with the ongoing demonization of the poor as poor because they are lazy, which is a favorite American pastime.
So, what did welfare reform do, what hasn't it done and who's on the rolls, anyway? The latter question is easy enough to answer.
From July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011, Colorado Works served 57,386 children. That's 68 percent of all individuals receiving basic cash assistance, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services. This shouldn't be a surprise, because welfare was designed to serve children. The average length of stay during that time was close to seven months.
Most recipients are episodic users, which was generally true before welfare reform was implemented and may be particularly true now, says Julie Kersick, director of the CDHS Office of Economic Security, which oversees Colorado Works. After all, welfare reform imposed a five-year lifetime limit on cash assistance. Things are tough now. They may be tougher down the road. Best be prudent. The average amount of cash assistance to a one-parent family is $383 a month. No one on welfare is getting rich.
In fact, since September 2004, less than 1 percent of all adults on the caseload have hit their five-year lifetime limit. One result of winnowing down the rolls was that it offered a clearer view of long-term, continuous users. What emerged were women with the IQs of children; women who suffered from domestic violence; women with cognitive and physical disabilities and lots of mental illness.
Welfare reform also brought a greater understanding of the needs of the working poor, such as affordable and accessible child care, Kersick says.
After it went into effect in the late '90s, poverty levels did go down. This is the basis of the rhetoric heralding its success. No doubt it played a role, but those who left or were dropped from the rolls also entered a full-employment economy at a time when the Earned Income Tax Credit and child-care subsidies were expanding.
Pre-recession, says Kersick, "one-third of recipients left the rolls and were economically better off and one-third made an equal exchange of benefits for income and one-third were not better off."
A 2009 report based primarily on a survey of those who left Colorado's welfare rolls in the first three months of 2007 found most still living in poverty. Their monthly household income, including food stamps, was $1,809. Most had worked since leaving the rolls, and their median hourly wage was slightly below $9.25 an hour.
That was before the recession. The economic climate of the past few years has presented an entirely different challenge in moving people from welfare to work.
Since the recession began, caseworkers have seen a slight uptick in two-parent households, more people with recent work histories and more child-only cases - kids living with Grandma and Grandpa, for example.
When welfare reform was implemented in Colorado, the average annual caseload was 18,817. It dropped all the way to 9,525 in 2008. By the end of June last year, it was back up to 15,956.