Is Welfare Doing Its Job When the Need Is Great?

Eighteen states have cut their welfare rolls in the last year amid the worst economic crisis since the Depression. These cuts are drawing attention to welfare's efficiency and effectiveness. Celia Hagert, senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, Texas, talks about how the state's welfare program is faring.

ALEX COHEN, host:

Every day, as the economy seems to be growing worse, you might think you'd see more and more Americans on welfare. But last year, 18 states cut the number of people receiving public benefits. One of those states was Texas. Here to explain is Celia Hagert. She's a senior policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, Texas. Welcome to the program.

Ms. CELIA HAGERT (Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Public Policy Priorities): Thank you.

COHEN: This week, the New York Times published a state-by-state analysis of cuts to welfare rolls. Texas was one of the biggest drops. How many people approximately got cut?

Ms. HAGERT: Well, we saw probably about a 15-percent reduction in the last year. But welfare rolls have been dropping in Texas since 2003 as the result of a policy the state decided to put in place to curb enrollment and reduce welfare spending, and that's known as the Full Family Sanction Policy. Basically, that means if a family doesn't meet one of the program requirements - for example, the work rule or the requirement that they keep their children in school and up to date on their immunizations - the whole family loses assistance immediately. And that's been the driving force behind welfare-caseload declines in Texas for the past five years.

COHEN: You work with many people on the ground. What does that mean when people aren't meeting those requirements? Do they just give up in terms of trying to receive assistance from the government?

Ms. HAGERT: Well, that's what the data show, is that rather than it being an effective compliance tool, where people are cut off and think OK, I've got to meet these rules and get back on, they simply disappear. About a third of the people that get sanctioned every month come back onto the rolls within six months. So, we're very worried that instead of improving compliance with the rules, it's simply forcing people off the program.

COHEN: When people are bumped off of the welfare rolls, they still have to be taken care of somehow. Do they still wind up becoming the financial burden for the state?

Ms. HAGERT: They continue to be eligible for other kinds of state assistance, and if they are struggling to make ends meet, then they're going to turn to local sources of assistance. They're going to turn private charities. So, one way or another, their needs don't go away.

COHEN: Some people in Texas are saying that unemployment might be up, but there are still plenty of jobs out there in the lower-income levels, for instance, in home health care, and they're arguing that maybe welfare-to-work is actually successful. What's your response?

Ms. HAGERT: Well, I think, in some ways, welfare-to-work has always been successful in getting people, easy-to-employ people, into low-wage jobs. But what we haven't done a good job of in Texas is getting people to take that next step and get a job that has family-supporting wages and that really allows them to move ahead and into the middle class. But that really even only holds true in a decent economy, and I think it's much harder to get people even into that low-wage job when we have an economy like we have today.

COHEN: So, in your opinion, what does the new administration need to do to address the situation?

Ms. HAGERT: First and foremost, the economic recovery package that Congress is debating right now has to include relief to states to help them bolster their welfare caseloads and help them provide greater amounts of assistance to needy families. And there is, I think, in both the House and the Senate versions of the bill, there is a contingency welfare fund that will help states that provide greater benefits to low-income families during the recession in the next two years. But I think a more permanent fix is Congress really needs to revisit the Welfare Reform Bill and look for ways to make it a program that's going to be more responsive to economic recession and, really, make it a program that includes incentives for states not just to push people off the welfare rolls and into the first low-wage paying job, but incentives for them to really ensure that families are getting into a better job, that they're getting the education or training that they need to permanently get off welfare and move into the middle class.

COHEN: Celia Hagert is with the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, Texas. Thank you.

Ms. HAGERT: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: Day to Day returns in a moment.

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