Magazine article Techniques

No Easy Road from Welfare to Work

Magazine article Techniques

No Easy Road from Welfare to Work

Article excerpt

WHERE LOW SKILLS INTERSECT TOUGH WORK REQUIREMENTS, WELFARE OFFICIALS ARE FINDING THAT REFORM LEGISLATION PAVES NO EASY ROAD TO HELPING PEOPLE OUT OF THE WELFARE SYSTEM.

During her first semester at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, human services major Josefina Garo struggled to keep up with her courses, pay her bills and take care of her three children. The lack of emotional and logistical support, she says now, almost led her to drop out.

As a student in LaGuardia's Family College program for welfare recipients, Garo got $15 worth of subway tokens per week and occasional on-campus day care for her youngest son. But at 36, she had been out of school for half a lifetime

"It's like if I told my son how to cross the street and I put him on the comer and I didn't cross the street with turn,she says. "They just put me out on the highway--and I got run over by a bunch of big Mack trucks."

With states hurtling toward employment quotas under last year's welfare reform law, welfare recipients like Garo aren't the only ones facing a tough crossing. Without offering much federal guidance or defining basic concepts like "work," the law is also pushing state and local officials and educators off the curb.

Strict quotas, vague rules

Under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, states must submit and start implementing a welfare plan by July 1 of this year. They must put 25 percent of all one-parent welfare families into "work activities" in fiscal 1997. (The work participation rate is calculated as an average of the rates for each month between July 1997 and July 1998.) The following year, 30 percent of all heads of one-parent households on welfare, including minors, must carry out work activities. By 2002, 50 percent must work. States that can't toe those lines will see cuts in their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the new federal welfare block grants. The law limits these in any case, allotting $81.9 billion for 50 states and four territories over five years.

The block grants provide a little leeway in the law but leave a great deal of ambiguity. States can exempt 20 percent of their caseload from the work or workfare requirements as "hardship cases." A controversial aspect of the law concerns another 20 percent who may be in school and count as working--the law allows up to 12 months of "vocational education training" per welfare recipient. However, legislators were unclear about what base the 20 percent applied to.

Because the House Ways and Means Committee has decided not to clarify the issue, states are free to decide whether the 20 percent should apply to their states' caseloads as a whole or only the subgroup required to work. In 1997 that would increase those numbers by a factor of four. Lawmakers meant to include only the smaller group but "there was an error" in the language and "because of all the controversy around it, it is not going to be corrected," MacKinnon says a Ways and Means staffer told him.

Another question is whether high school education for teenage parents is included in the percentage total. Welfare parents under age 20 are required to attend school or equivalency classes. In New York state, for instance, they alone make up an uncounted but large portion of the welfare caseload, says New York federal education legislation coordinator Alistair MacKinnon. And it's not just an urban thing--in Idaho, just the 18- and 19-year-old single household heads make up 15 percent of the welfare population--and that's leaving out those under 18, says Trudy Anderson of the Idaho Governor's Welfare Task Force.

Readings differ, but a joint analysis by the National Governors' Association, the National Council of State Legislatures and the American Public Welfare Association concludes that the 20 percent education cap "includes a teen head of household in school or education directly related to employment. …

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