November 2, 1997 in Nation/World

Idaho Welfare-To-Work Pace Leads U.S. Some Ex-Recipients Grateful For Push, Others Slide Deeper Into Poverty

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Idaho is bouncing residents off public assistance faster than any other state.

Since kicking off its aggressive welfare reform program in July, the number of Idaho families receiving cash assistance has dwindled to a mere 2,324.

Nationally, welfare caseloads have dropped about 45 percent since this time last year.

Idaho’s caseload translates to a 70 percent reduction in the same period - the country’s highest, according to state welfare experts. In the Panhandle, the figure is closer to 80 percent.

That has state officials cautiously declaring victory in the war on welfare.

“Our closure rate is at the top of the states,” said Alan Rowland, deputy administrator for Idaho’s Division of Welfare. “Tentatively, it looks like - in terms of caseload numbers - welfare reform has been a success.”

But has it?

Fewer Idahoans are living off direct tax subsidies than at any time in recent memory. State officials tout Idaho’s strict two-year lifetime benefits cap, and their aggressive push toward getting people on the job.

Case workers, government officials and a recent state survey suggest many ex-welfare recipients may now be employed.

But there are no data to indicate how well residents are surviving without assistance. And interviews with a handful of former recipients indicate at least some live in squalor.

“There is a startling lack of information nationwide about what is happening to real people,” said Jodie Levin-Epstein, with the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C. “Caseload declines only mean the caseloads are declining. It doesn’t tell us whether fragile families are faring better or worse.”

Kristine White, for one, is faring decidedly better.

At 19, the Hayden Lake woman had spent three years on and off the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.

She had no job and two children fathered by different men. Child support was nonexistent. One father was in prison. The other had disappeared.

“I knew I should work, but I had to be home with my kids, too,” White said. “I didn’t feel I had a choice.”

A month after enrolling in the new state welfare system - Temporary Assistance for Families in Idaho, White traded in her welfare check for a small child care subsidy. She got a job at a Jack in the Box restaurant, and has since been promoted. She plans to stay off welfare.

“They pretty much forced me to do it,” White said of her TAFI case workers. “And I appreciated it. If you can’t help yourself, sometimes you need a push from someone to help you.”

White’s achievements make her proud - a feeling she said she went too long without.

“I can do it on my own,” she said.

Others aren’t as sure.

After divorcing her first husband, Dawn, a 23-year-old Hayden Lake mother of three, moved into a two-bedroom apartment.

Sickly and tense, she got jobs and lost them, complaining of hearing trouble and raw nerves. She eventually married her new boyfriend, a dishwasher, and got on welfare.

But under welfare reform, she said, their cash assistance was sliced by a third. She abandoned the program except for food stamps and Medicaid. Her husband’s hours at work were cut. They lost her apartment.

“When I was alone and got AFDC, I could afford a two-bedroom place by myself,” she said. “Now I have a husband who works, and we’re living in a one-bedroom trailer.”

Her three children - two pre-schoolers and a first-grader - share a bedroom while she and her husband sleep in the living room.

“Everyone’s at each other’s throats,” she said. “I’m on Prozac and they’re talking about putting my son on Ritalin. I’m afraid for my kids. I don’t know how we’re going to make it.”

Social workers say Dawn may have made bad choices and insist her case is unusual.

In May, welfare case worker Brenda Schweikert had 50 clients - single mothers, mostly, who visited once a month to collect a benefit check. Today, Schweikert is down to one cash-assistance case.

“I’d say 90 percent of them went to work,” Schweikert said. “Some started their own businesses doing child care. Three or four moved away, and two moved back. I have some people making $3.35 an hour and some making 10-something an hour.”

One woman with no work experience now has a dental assistant job with an employer who’s helping pay for her college. Only one of Schweikert’s clients was “sanctioned” - cut off for not complying with the new requirements that all recipients be working or looking for work.

“It’s been a great feeling,” said Schweikert, who has worked four years for the department. “I was really afraid at first, but there are so many resources available I think things are working.”

A recent state survey of about 1,100 former welfare recipients showed 45 percent of the people were working or looking for work, and nearly 80 percent are able to pay their rent or live in permanent housing.

“We haven’t heard an uproar or apprehension from food banks or shelters, nor from participant themselves,” said Rowland. “It’s been calm and quiet.”

Advocates for the poor question the figures, and worry that they’ll change when winter comes or if Idaho’s booming economy slides.

“The real question is whether low-wage workers can sustain their jobs in economic tough times or during personal crises,” Levin-Epstein said.

Others wonder how realistic it is to hope that working mothers with subsidized child care will eventually work their way into self-sufficiency in a service economy.

Welfare reform workers like North Idaho’s Steve McKenna recognize there are unanswered questions.

“Some people are working, some have left the state, some are choosing to bank their 24 months of benefits,” he said. “We’re still only four months into this.”

But many are counting on families pulling themselves through when times get tough. Some officials insist the system sometimes works best when it appears not to be working at all.

One Coeur d’Alene woman said she was kicked off welfare because she missed a job-training appointment. She appealed her case to a welfare board, but lost.

“It was very unfair,” she said. “I was crying all the time, I didn’t know what to do. Finally, I thought, ‘I want nothing to do with them.”’ Angry, the woman said she did the only thing she could think of: She went out and got a job. She dropped off Medicaid, quit taking food stamps and went to court to have her child-support payments increased.

She’s still angry, but says she’s surviving on her salary as a grocery store cashier.

“I felt like, ‘how can you fight them,’ you know?” she said.

, DataTimes MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.

This sidebar appeared with the story:

SHARP DECLINE

Since kicking off its welfare reform program in July, the number of Idaho families receiving cash assistance has dwindled to 2,324.

Nationally, welfare caseloads have dropped about 45 percent since this time last year. Idaho’s caseload translates to a 70 percent reduction since September 1996.

Cut in the Spokane edition.

This sidebar appeared with the story: SHARP DECLINE Since kicking off its welfare reform program in July, the number of Idaho families receiving cash assistance has dwindled to 2,324. Nationally, welfare caseloads have dropped about 45 percent since this time last year. Idaho’s caseload translates to a 70 percent reduction since September 1996.

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