Academic journal article Social Work

Changing Safety Net of Last Resort: Downsizing General Assistance for Employable Adults

Academic journal article Social Work

Changing Safety Net of Last Resort: Downsizing General Assistance for Employable Adults

Article excerpt

The passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 (P.L. 104-193) has stimulated widespread concern about the viability of government income supports for low-income people. The act replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program with state-designed and state-operated Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs and imposed strict work requirements and lifetime time limits on TANF receipt. It also tightened eligibility requirements for food stamp and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients (Hagen, 1999).

Collectively, these changes have weakened the income supports for poor populations traditionally served by social workers (Hagen, 1999; Schneider & Netting, 1999). In addition, the devolution of program responsibility from the federal government to state and local levels raises questions about variations in services availability in a decentralized program environment (Peterson, 1995; Schneider & Netting). The decline of caseloads by over 40 percent since TANF was implemented, as well as wide differences in the percentage declines among states, has exacerbated these concerns (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999a).

General assistance (GA) programs represent an interesting precursor to the decentralized TANF program model. GA serves as the cash program of last resort for people who are poor (Lay, Lazere, Greenstein, & Gold, 1993). It consists of state and local welfare programs that provide cash and other benefits to individuals who are ineligible for TANF or SSI benefits (Piven & Cloward, 1993). Although GA recipients sometimes have been stereotyped as young, urban African American males, empirical research has shown considerable gender, racial, and age diversity in the GA population (Halter, 1996; Henly & Danziger, 1996). Furthermore, state GA programs serve a mix of families, disabled people, and individuals considered employable (Gallagher, Uccello, Pierce, & Reidy, 1999). Although national data on state GA caseload changes over time have not been published, program cutbacks in the early 1990s resulted in major GA caseload reductions in several states (Sylvester, 1992).

Because GA receives no federal funds, each state has complete discretion to design its program. This services model parallels TANF in its reliance on decentralized government decision making. GA programs, thus, can provide lessons about both services variability and common program features that have arisen in a decentralized income support system.

The adequacy of GA programs may critically affect the well-being of people who lose TANF and SSI eligibility (Uccello & Gallagher, 1997). Research has demonstrated that homelessness increases in the absence of GA programs (Burt, 1992; Coulton, Crowell, & Verma, 1992). Homelessness further diminishes employability (Halter, 1992); thus, prospects for self-sufficiency are compromised when GA programs are cut. In addition, because GA eligibility often is tied to eligibility for indigent medical care programs, the availability of GA may increase access to limited medical care for the poorest segments of the population (Gallagher et al., 1999). The importance of such program linkages for determining medical services eligibility has been shown by large declines in Medicaid caseloads after Medicaid eligibility was decoupled from TANF (Ellwood, 1999).

This study describes the characteristics of current State GA programs across important program dimensions: caseload size, geographic and target group coverage, work requirements, time limits, and administrative arrangements. Unlike earlier GA studies, we also analyze how these programs changed from 1989 to 1998. This allows us to assess how decentralized GA programs changed during the period in which national welfare reform debates culminated with the PRWORA of 1996, as well as the most important effects of such changes. …

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