February 24, 1998 in Nation/World

Welfare Reform Study Finds Poor Mostly Worse Off Washington Is One Of The Few States Where Policies Actually Help

Alia Beard And Jonathan Martin S The Associated Pr Staff writer
 

Idaho’s shrunken welfare safety net makes it the nation’s worst place to be poor, according to a national study released Monday.

Across the border, Washington’s welfare policies were rated as some of the most friendly to the nation’s poor.

The two states’ policies were included in a Tufts University study analyzing welfare reform strategies and their impact on poor people.

Researchers from the Massachusetts college found two-thirds of state welfare reform programs will plunge the poor further into poverty.

Their primary conclusion: “The majority are failing and failing badly.”

“It is a sobering fact,” said John Cook, Tuft’s research director. “I think a part of what we hope the report will accomplish is to send a wake-up call to the nation” and to states that are not improving their residents’ lives.

Idaho’s program was singled out.

Given freedom by Congress in 1996 to design its own programs for cash grants, health and child care, Idaho took a tact considered one of the most conservative in the country.

No family gets more than $276 a month, regardless of size, and no family can stay on assistance more than two years. Washington’s grants begin at $446 and can continue for up to five years.

Idaho Gov. Phil Batt said he had not seen the criteria for the study, but defended his state’s program.

Welfare caseload reduction - a 70 percent plunge in a year - is eye-popping, he noted.

“We make no apologies for saying people have to go off the rolls and go to work,” he said. “That was the purpose of the entire effort.”

According to a recent Idaho Department of Health and Welfare study of former welfare recipients, half found jobs, and 44 percent said the program increased selfesteem.

The Tufts study drew quick criticism from the American Public Welfare Association and the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

The study skews results toward the status quo, said Amy Tucci, spokesman for the nonprofit research group APWA.

“If states exercise the flexibility afforded under the law, it looks as if they were penalized and if they maintained a lot of what the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children law was, they looked better.”

The study’s methodology also drew criticism.

For example, the study counted work requirements and strict time limits as a negative factor. That’s what welfare reform is about, said Michael Kharfen, spokesman for the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Tufts researchers rated state reforms based on 30 qualifications. They found that most states now provide more child care for the poor and allow working families on assistance to keep more earnings.

But most states, by demanding welfare recipients work and by lowering cash grants, are not helping the poor, according to the study.

There are two primary goals behind welfare reform, said Jack Shonkoff, an expert on welfare reform. One is to decrease the welfare rolls and the other is to reduce poverty.

“Very often people confuse the two goals,” said Shonkoff, a professor at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. “How you do it makes the difference in terms of whether people are more or less likely to be independent. If people need more support and more time to be independent and you don’t give it to them, their economic situation will get worse.”

Jennifer Stucker, a professor of social work at Eastern Washington University, predicted Idaho’s “stingy” program would force poor families “into poverty and destitution.”

“I can’t really see a sense of government responsibility for its people” in Idaho’s program, said Stucker, who has analyzed welfare reforms in Washington and Idaho.

Washington’s welfare reforms, like those in Idaho, demand work from recipients of public assistance.

“Our key to getting off public assistance is getting a job - even if it’s a minimum wage job,” said Gov. Gary Locke on Monday.

But the study, which rated Washington eighth nationally, also found support services in place to smooth the welfare-towork transition.

Locke credited the state’s success with continuing job training after a job is secured, public-private partnerships and child care. The Legislature allocated an additional $100 million in 1997-98 to improve quality and availability of child care.

Washington’s welfare rolls shrunk 14 percent in a year, to 82,852 families last month, exceeding goals set for 1999.

The state’s new program, WorkFirst, “puts the responsibility on the client,” said Sandy Lickfold, administrator of Spokane’s North Side welfare office.

“They’re held accountable for what they want to do. The clients that want to work … we give them every opportunity to do it.”

The Tufts study shows that most states’ policy changes are unlikely to help, said Larry Brown, director of the university’s Center on Hunger and Poverty.

“Given all the hopeful talk about states doing a better job than the federal government, the data shows that most states actually are making things worse,” Brown said.

“If the promise of welfare reform is to improve the economic viability of the poor, it is a promise largely broken.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Welfare reform hurting the poor

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Alia Beard and Jonathan Martin Staff writers

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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