Idaho Remakes Welfare State Aims To Change System From Handout To Helping Hand
Carol Rentfro is one of the success stories.
With three young children and no car, she was jobless and living in Athol. She had left her husband in search of a better life, but traded dependency on him for welfare.
A mandatory job-training program for welfare recipients helped her get back on her feet. Now she has a full-time clerical job with the Department of Health and Welfare and supports her family.
“I feel like such a better person that I’m not on welfare,” she said during a lunch break last week.
But only 10 of Idaho’s 44 counties, including Kootenai and Bonner, offer the job-training program. In the rest of the state, including economically hard-hit Shoshone County, welfare is just a handout. Recipients don’t have to work, and the handout itself can trap them into continued dependency.
Idaho is poised to change the way its welfare system works, whether or not Congress changes the rules nationwide. A council appointed by the governor is holding hearings across the state to come up with ideas for reforms. North Idaho residents will get their chance to comment from 6:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday at the Holiday Inn in Coeur d’Alene.
The council’s focus is the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, which was created in the 1930s “to allow widowed ladies to stay home and raise their children,” said Judy Brooks, administrator of state welfare programs. But widowed mothers don’t get AFDC any more, Brooks said. They get Social Security.
AFDC has evolved into a program that provides cash to poor, mostly single-parent families. Idaho’s payments, an average of $274 per month, are among the lowest in the nation. But the families also qualify for food stamps (up to $304 for a family of three), Medicaid and, if they’re lucky enough to find it, subsidized housing. When you put all those together, it’s an existence, Brooks said, but not much of one.
“The fear of losing it becomes almost disabling,” she said. “Is that creating dependency? Yes, I think it is.”
Gov. Phil Batt wants changes that will make Idaho’s welfare system push its nearly 25,000 recipients toward self-sufficiency. “The recipients are the ones that we’re hurting,” he said. “There’s been many a poll run that (shows) they do not like to be on welfare.”
Some people can’t work and need welfare, Batt said. But the governor wants those who can to get a job.
Answer to a dilemma
Most people on welfare in Idaho are single mothers and their children. The average age of adult AFDC recipients is 29; the average child is 7. Sixty-five percent of the benefits go to children, 30 percent to adult women, 5 percent to adult men.
For single mothers with few job skills, welfare is an answer to a dilemma. If they work at minimum-wage jobs, they often don’t make enough money to cover child-care and rent, let alone health coverage. If they go on welfare, they can stay home with their kids.
Rentfro said once she got on welfare, her situation started to seem inevitable. She couldn’t imagine getting a job until all her children were in school.
State Sen. Gordon Crow, R-Coeur d’Alene, who sits on the governor’s Welfare Reform Advisory Council, said he’s heard similar stories at hearings around the state. “Time after time, we hear welfare recipients say they didn’t have a choice, they needed to go on welfare. For the vast majority, I disagree.”
Crow said in his opinion, the issue is not whether mothers should stay home with their children. It is: “What is the role of government?”
Idaho has an aggressive child-support enforcement program that’s among the nation’s most successful. It goes after absent parents, and if the children have been getting AFDC, the state takes the child-support money to offset the government payments.
“If every child got child support, we wouldn’t be sitting here today,” Brooks said.
More than a third of the AFDC benefits Idaho pays out are recovered through collection of child support.
But, Brooks said, “There are still a significant number of absent parents who do not pay.”
Job training helped
The program that made the difference for Carol Rentfro is called Job Opportunity and Basic Skills. It forces AFDC recipients to further their education, learn job skills and look for work.
JOBS also may provide child care, transportation to work, and other help.
The program has been expanded from seven counties to 10, and the state would like to expand it further, but money is tight.
Many JOBS participants are parents attending college. Their student loans and grants aren’t counted as income under AFDC, and they get full child care. That’s led to some controversy, Brooks said.
“One theory is they should go to college, get a four-year degree, get a great-paying job and we’ll never see them again. The other group says when you’re down and out and have children, college is not an option - you go to work.”
The JOBS program provided Rentfro with transportation, day care, a community college course, training and apprenticeships. Within seven months, she successfully competed for a full-time clerical job and bought her first car, a 1979 Honda Accord.
A year later, she’s still living in Athol, working full time and is almost off public assistance. A transitional program for those working their way off welfare covers her family’s medical benefits and pays some child care for a year.
Rentfro said she “wasn’t real thrilled” when the state ordered her to enroll in the JOBS program. “I had a bad attitude,” she said.
Though she misses all the time she used to spend with her three children, she’s happier with the change.
She had envisioned going to work someday after her kids were all in school, “flipping burgers somewhere, getting minimum wage.”
Instead of a food-stained jersey, Rentfro wears pumps and flower-print dresses to work. Her kids go to day care across the street from her office, and she can visit them on her lunch hour. “I didn’t like paying with food stamps in the store,” she remembered. “I’d be in line with a cart full of groceries while the people behind me had half as much and were paying with their hard-earned money.” “I didn’t want anyone to know,” she said.
Making new rules
Idaho’s welfare reform council will use the comments it gets from hearings around the state to suggest reforms. Batt wants to propose legislation in January.
Among the possibilities: Time limits for AFDC benefits. Expanding JOBS or other welfare-to-work efforts. Cutting additional benefits that go to families who have more children. Limiting teenage parents’ eligibility. Stepping up child support enforcement.
“Welfare caseloads continue to grow in spite of Idahoans enjoying a robust economy,” Batt wrote in his executive order launching the reform effort.
With $31 million in state and federal money going into the program this year, Batt wants it to promote the values he says Idahoans hold dear: work, family, selfsufficiency and responsibility.
“It hasn’t worked well,” Batt said. “We are going to see some reforms.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: One Color Photo; One Graphics: Who’s on welfare in Idaho? Percentage of residents receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children. County Percent Benewah 3.6% Boundary 3.3% Bonner 2% Kootenai 2.2% Shoshone 8.1% North Idaho 2.83% Statewide* 2.04% Nationwide 5.37% *Idaho has the lowest rate in the nation. SOURCE: Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Qualifying for help Here are the requirements to qualify for Aid to Families with Dependent Children in Idaho: Families in which children are deprived of parental care and support based on the death, continued absence, incapacity or unemployment of one or both parents. Low or no income. Assets of less than $1,000 (not counting a home and household items, car of up to $1,500 value). In the 10 Idaho counties, including Kootenai and Bonner, that offer the JOBS program, AFDC recipients must participate in job skills training, education or work programs. Parents of children under 3, the elderly and the disabled are exempt. The requirement doesn’t apply in Idaho’s other 34 counties.
This sidebar appeared with the story: Qualifying for help Here are the requirements to qualify for Aid to Families with Dependent Children in Idaho: Families in which children are deprived of parental care and support based on the death, continued absence, incapacity or unemployment of one or both parents. Low or no income. Assets of less than $1,000 (not counting a home and household items, car of up to $1,500 value). In the 10 Idaho counties, including Kootenai and Bonner, that offer the JOBS program, AFDC recipients must participate in job skills training, education or work programs. Parents of children under 3, the elderly and the disabled are exempt. The requirement doesn’t apply in Idaho’s other 34 counties.