The country’s 60-year tradition of entitlements ends Tuesday in Washington, and one welfare mother is excited.
Sharon Bilte scours the job market daily, confident the college degree she earned while on welfare is a passport to work.
“I know I’ll find a job,” said the 47-year-old Newman Lake woman.
But like others preparing for WorkFirst, the aggressive new program for Washington’s 100,000 welfare recipients, Bilte is also anxious, confused by the lack of details.
How much subsidized child care is available for her 9-year-old daughter during her job search? How much will it cost?
“What will I do with Stacey while I’m out looking for a job?” Bilte asked. “No one seems to know.”
The state lurches toward the first part of welfare reform this week like an anxious teen: all energy, little polish.
WorkFirst requires the able-bodied poor to get a job immediately, taking the first job offered. If they don’t, with few exceptions they’ll be kicked off the public rolls. A five-year limit on benefits begins in August.
But as state officials frantically write rules for new programs, large holes remain in critical areas.
The unanswered questions, most notably about child care, cause anxiety for social service organizations. They bombarded welfare administrators with fears and frustrations at a recent hearing in Spokane.
Nobody’s more nervous than recipients themselves.
“I’ve been on welfare five years,” said Gloria Smith, sitting in line at the East Second Avenue welfare office last week. “Does that mean they’re cutting me off? Do you know?”
State administrators say they’ve worked overtime since the Legislature adopted sweeping welfare-reform laws in April.
“It’s taken us 60 years to get here, and we’ve got 90 days to figure it all out,” said Jerry Friedman, assistant secretary of the Department of Social and Heath Services.
Advocates for the poor view the lack of details on child care subsidies as a bad omen.
“The only thing they seemed to spend time fleshing out is on work search, leaving people to think that’s all there is,” said Linda Stone, director of the Spokane office of the Children’s Alliance, an advocacy organization.
“The emphasis seems to be on reducing the number of people receiving public assistance, rather than will families come out on the other end better able to support their kids.”
WorkFirst is Washington’s response to the federal overhaul of welfare programs. Congress gave states strict deadlines to decrease welfare rolls, and the freedom to tailor programs to state needs.
All agree this summer will end with the most significant changes in social service programs since the Depression, when welfare rules were instituted.
Along with the new philosophy comes new terminology.
Out: “Aid to Families with Dependent Children.”
In: “Temporary Aid to Needy Families.”
Out: “Job requirements.”
In: “Work opportunities.”
Any job is a good job, the state now says.
According to federal law, Washington must reduce welfare rolls by 15 percent, or 11,000 people, by 1999. Today, 22,000 Spokane County residents are on public assistance. About 13,000 of them are children.
While drafts of the WorkFirst plan are short on some details, rules for work are clear. After an orientation, welfare recipients will be sent to look for a job.
If the search is unsuccessful, they’ll be questioned about barriers that keep them from working. Language and job-training classes will be available. Indicative of the work emphasis in the new welfare system, recipients who can’t find a job will volunteer at nonprofit agencies 30 hours a week.
At the same time, state child-support enforcement officers will unholster new authority to cancel the professional and driver’s licenses of deadbeat parents, and to track them across state lines.
Mike Masten, state director of WorkFirst, said the program is a better deal for the poor.
“We know if you stay on welfare, you are going to stay in poverty,” said Masten. “If you get a job, you are one step out. If you get some training and education, you are one step further out.”
Welfare advocates agree that recipients should work. The Brookings Institution found jobs boost self-esteem and encourage self-sufficiency of welfare recipients, and polls show strong public support for pushing welfare recipients toward jobs.
Accomplishing that isn’t simply a matter of filling out a job application and wearing a clean shirt, advocates say.
At the June 17 WorkFirst hearing in Spokane, state administrators were chastised for not properly considering complications, like the cost of transportation and job training, and getting some recipients off drugs.
But of all the concerns WorkFirst has generated, the child-care issue appears to rank No. 1. Anticipating much higher demand, the Legislature set aside $100 million to improve the availability and quality of subsidized child care.
But subsidies for providers - the amount the state pays per child - are expected to drop because of the increased demand.
Already the subsidy is at 75 percent of the market rate. If it falls further, Kathy Thamm, program director of Spokane’s Family Care Resources, expects many providers to stop accepting kids from welfare families.
The amount of the WorkFirst subsidy hasn’t been determined, even though it is scheduled to change Tuesday, Masten said.
He disputes criticism that the changes will hurt families. “Despite everything else people have heard, this is not a program of quotas, or reducing cases. This is about connecting families to employment and opportunity,” Masten said.
That sounds good to Karen, 41, on welfare almost 10 years. She quit her accounting job to raise her two sons alone and care for her sick mother. The youngest boy is now 17, so Karen has a fresh resume in hand.
“People think if you’re on welfare you are lazy, that you don’t have brains, that if you did you wouldn’t be at home,” said Karen, who wouldn’t give her last name. “I wasn’t going to leave my boys to just anyone. … I’m ready to get a job now.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WorkFirst deadlines Here’s how key elements of WorkFirst will be phased in: Tuesday Changes to child-care programs, including anticipated drop in state subsidy; stricter child support enforcement. July 26 Child support for recipients drops $50. Aug. 1 Clock begins ticking on fiveyear limit to benefits. Recipients are given orientation, screening and work references; required job search begins. Adjustments to some grants, raising the amount for some recipients working part-time. Restrictions begin; recipients must prove citizenship; persons convicted of drug felonies lose benefits; teen mothers must prove they live in “acceptable living conditions.” Sept. 1 Food subsidy program for legal immigrants begins. Oct. 1 Welfare-to-work program to help refugees find jobs begins. Nov. 1 Work search assistance fully in place; results of job searches assessed; several job training programs begin, including community college courses. Program for families needing one-time $1,500 grants begins. Source: Washington Department of Social and Health Services
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