For 8,000 impoverished Spokane households, the clock starts ticking soon.
Because of sweeping welfare reform in Washington, Spokane’s poor must pull themselves out of poverty and into lifelong self-reliance within five years.
State officials are busy designing programs to help welfare families find and keep jobs. But if work can’t be found, public assistance ends anyway.
“This is the key change that is driving welfare reform,” said Sally Pritchard of Spokane’s Columbia Legal Services, which provides legal help for the poor. “This is no longer based on need. It also asks how long you have been there.”
The reforms kick in Aug. 1 for first-time welfare applicants. Time limits for current welfare recipients begin Nov. 1.
The cut-off for public assistance overshadowed a discussion on welfare reform at Eastern Washington University on Thursday. About 50 people, including many students on welfare, packed a classroom to listen to welfare officials, politicians and social service agencies.
Many of the questions from the audience went unanswered.
There are still no rules for sweeping changes in subsidized child care, child support enforcement and job training. Those guidelines are being written by the state Department of Social and Health Services.
The plan will be made public June 9.
The state’s goal is to drop welfare caseloads by 15 percent within two years.
Persons convicted of drug-related felonies will be refused benefits. People applying for welfare must look for a job for 30 days. If unsuccessful, they would have to satisfy work requirements by volunteering or working temporary jobs.
“Our goal is to make you as employed and self-sufficient as possible by the end of that five-year time limit,” said Terry Covey, regional program manager for Social and Health Services.
But Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, fears there aren’t enough jobs in Spokane to employ the thousands who will soon be denied assistance, saying the economy requires some level of unemployment.
“It’s kind of a musical chairs phenomenon, so when the music stops, there are people not in chairs,” said Brown, an EWU economics professor. “When unemployment drops, the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to slow growth.”
About 375 EWU and 600 Spokane community college students are on welfare. With 20,000 people on public assistance, Spokane’s 3rd District has the biggest welfare rolls in the state.
The new rules require college students to pursue a degree that will lead to a job.
That requirement could jeopardize welfare recipients pursuing liberal arts degrees, said Mary Seagrave, a paralegal with the Northwest Justice Project, which offers free legal advice to the poor.
She fears caseworkers will question the viability of creative writing or history degrees. But she also conceded the difficulty of landing a job with such degrees.
“I’m a sociology major; I know how hard it is to get a job,” she said.<
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