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Reform: Helping Or Hurting? Critics Fear Changes In Welfare Will Promote Homelessness

In a warehouse sandwiched between a printing plant and a plastic factory, Cathy Larson hands out free rice, noodles and bread.

“You may get food only every 60 days - no exceptions,” reads the sign on the wall.

It is places like this, the Post Falls Food Bank, that Larson believes will see the first waves of the big splash that is Idaho welfare reform.

“I don’t think it’s going to work,” she said. “If you’re going to limit (cash assistance) to two years, you’re going to have problems - more theft, more violence.”

“There will be people out on the street, begging for food and money.”

The Idaho Senate on Friday overwhelmingly approved the first two of seven bills designed to revamp Idaho’s welfare system. The bills now head to the House of Representatives, where they’re also expected to pass.

Most of the changes wouldn’t take effect for 2-1/2 years, although some would kick in as soon as Jan. 1, 1997. If federal welfare reform efforts falter, the state will seek waivers to federal rules, which could take months more.

Still, the changes would drastically alter the state’s welfare system in an attempt to promote work and responsibility.

Politicians, caseworkers, even many welfare recipients call the current welfare system a disaster.

“In 1965, we signed into law the War on Poverty. We’re 30 years down the road, we’ve spent $5-1/2 trillion, and poverty is six times worse,” said Sen. Gordon Crow, R-Hayden. “It’s a completely failed system that destroys families and creates a dependent culture.”

The new plan offers more child care and job training - but limits cash assistance to only two years. The goal is to move people off the dole and into jobs.

“People do need help. But now we give everyone the blanket solution - we get them onto the system. And it’s so hard to get out,” said Karen McGee, a Pocatello City Councilwoman who chaired the welfare reform council.

In Kellogg, welfare recipient Pat Hendricks said she agrees with many of the reforms. She’s seen people “party away” the welfare rent money, then live with friends, she said. She’s seen others “borrow” other people’s children to qualify for higher checks.

But she’s also seen people who have no hot water because they can’t afford gas. She fears that some of the changes - especially the lifetime two-year limit on cash assistance - will backfire.

“Instead of promoting people getting off welfare, I think it’s promoting homelessness,” she said.

That’s not an uncommon view. At hearings throughout the state, many people called the changes Draconian and unworkable.

Crow counters that more than half of the states have passed some version of welfare reform. The Idaho proposals are similar to those in place in Michigan, Virginia and Massachusetts, he said.

“You don’t see children (in those states) sleeping on grates, you don’t see people homeless,” he said. “You see just the opposite.”

Proponents argue that while the plan takes away some aid, it’s designed to provide a helping hand with more child care, job training and child support enforcement.

“We’re saying compassion is to give people what they need to stand on their own two feet,” said Crow. “We’re not going to have people sitting at home channel-surfing all day on public assistance.”

For the estimated 10 to 12 percent of welfare recipients who never will be able to work, due to medical and mental conditions, the state has built-in exceptions, said McGee.

In her cramped office at the Post Falls Food Bank, Larson flips through a list of the reforms and shakes her head.She approves of some of the changes, such as allowing welfare recipients to have cars worth $4,600, instead of the current $1,500. With more child care and more incentives to work, she said, more people would get off welfare.But

Some of the reforms, she said, are too much, too fast. It is virtually impossible, she said, for a single parent to pay for rent, a car, child care, medical insurance and food with a minimum-wage job.

“Overall, I think it’s going to hurt,” she said. “You’re going to see a lot more crime, people dealing in drugs, prostitution. They have to get that money.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo