Congress Adds New Requirements to Welfare Law

Almost unnoticed, Congress has renewed the landmark 1996 welfare law, adding new work requirements for states and families that receive assistance. Each state will have to show that 50 percent of people who get welfare payments are working or training for jobs, a target only a few states have met.

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Congress has handed the states a tough new assignment. Take the work requirements placed on welfare recipients ten years ago and make them even tougher. Each state will have to show that 50 percent of people who get welfare payments are working or training for jobs.

That target, passed by Congress last month, is a mark only few states have met, though some, like Maryland, say their low numbers don't reflect the hard work they've done in helping people find work.

NPR's Rachel Jones reports.

RACHEL JONES reporting:

For many welfare recipients in Maryland, the path to a new beginning leads through a crowded waiting room to a small windowless classroom like this one.

Ms. AMY FROST (Maryland Welfare Office): Okay, lets move down to education.

JONES: At a northwest Baltimore welfare office, eight women in this job-training program are bent over their desks studying a fictional job application.

Ms. FROST: Don't laugh. Poor Mr. Smith. Who'd like to pick out the first one there, first there in education?

JONES: Program manager Amy Frost is helping them carefully dissect the errors in the job application of one Albert C. Smith. Section by section, they're trying to figure out just what in the world Mr. Smith could've been thinking.

Ms. FROST: What's the first error in his reference section?

Unidentified Woman: No telephone number for his previous employer.

Ms. FROST: Okay, that's one.

JONES: These women, and state bureaucracies across the country, are up against an urgent deadline. When Congress finally reauthorized the 1996 Welfare Law last month after a three-year delay, legislators toughened it up. The new law will require states to prove that half the people who get cash payments are working. That was actually the goal of the original law. What's different now is that the new legislation has teeth. It will map out exactly what the sates can count as work and what they can't.

State welfare agencies may resort to requiring 40 hours a week of work from welfare recipients to meet that 50 percent rate.

The people in this classroom illustrate just how difficult that goal may be. Finding low-income jobs hasn't been the problem for these women. They've all worked before. Take 38-year-old Yvette Nutt (ph).

Ms. YVETTE NUTT (Welfare recipient): I worked at Burlington Coat Factory, I worked at Popeye's. And at Popeye's I did cashiering, I've dealt with the public. I'm very good with dealing with the public because I like people.

JONES: But like many welfare recipients, staying employed is the biggest hurdle. For example, Nutt really liked her last job, cleaning a school cafeteria. But she ran up against one of the many obstacles poor families face, getting to work.

Ms. NUTT: Because of the transportation issues, and transferring my daughter from county schools to city schools, I left, and I lost my car and a lot of things happened.

JONES: State welfare administrators are bracing for their own set of obstacles. Kevin McGuire oversees Maryland's welfare program. He says the hard work his state has done doesn't show up in the official numbers.

Mr. KEVIN MCGUIRE (Maryland Welfare Official): Here I am, one of the states, that if you looked at simply the federally reported work participation rate and knew nothing else about what we did, you might conclude that we weren't doing a good job.

JONES: Last year, the records show that only about 1 in 5 Maryland welfare recipients were working. But McGuire says the state's 20 percent showing is misleading. After all, Maryland's welfare caseload plunged from more than 220,000 in 1995, to where it stands today, just over 57,000.

Mr. MCGUIRE: Over two-thirds of them are children. We have maybe around 10,000 or 11,000 adults at this point that are on the caseload. We're down to a small number of people that we're engaging all the time.

JONES: Engaging in skills training programs, substance abuse treatment or volunteer work. But those are exactly the kinds of activities that may no longer be counted as work participation. No one knows yet, because the Department of Health and Human Services has until June to release a new set of rules.

State welfare officials fear they'll get buried under a mountain of paperwork trying to conform to those rules, and they worry bout how they'll pay stiff federal penalties if they don't make the grade.

But Robert Rector, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says he's heard those complaints before, back in 1996.

Mr. ROBERT RECTOR (Heritage Foundation): They said, oh, we can't do that, oh it's too hard! They did it, and it worked.

JONES: Rector helped write the 1996 law. He says the reauthorization simply gets states to shape up and get back on track. And he says it will also force state welfare administrators to face the hard truth.

Mr. RECTOR: The problem is that about 60 percent of the adults that are currently in this program are not required to do anything. And that's a problem, and we need to address that. And that's what this law will address.

JONES: State officials may balk, but Rector says the dramatic results of welfare reform clearly outweigh the costs. Kevin McGuire and other state welfare officials just hope the new rules will create a level playing field instead of more red tape.

Rachel Jones, NPR News.

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