State-Based Welfare Gets Cautious Praise

Landmark reform marks two-year anniversary

WASHINGTON—With the passage of the two-year anniversary of the signing of landmark federal welfare reform legislation, Catholic groups recently took stock of the impact of the law. While grassroots Catholic organizations generally gave the new law favorable reviews, official Church organizations and relief services were more cautious.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, passed by the Republican Congress, was signed by President Clinton Aug. 22, 1996. The law transformed the welfare system from an open-ended federal program to a state-based initiative with strict work requirements.

Recipients could only stay on the roll for 24 consecutive months, with a lifetime limit of five years. The law reduced federal welfare outlays and combined several welfare programs into one large annual block grant to the states. While the law is undeniably far-reaching, it did leave a basic safety net in place — eligibility for Food Stamps and Medicaid remained unchanged.

Aided by a strong economy that has sent employers on a hiring binge, the new law has sent welfare rolls plummeting across the country. Welfare rolls have declined markedly in nearly every state of the Union. Overall, the number of U.S. families receiving federal cash welfare payments has declined from almost 5 million in January, 1993, to just over 3 million in June, 1998 — a 39% drop.

The decline in some states has been even more impressive. While not every state can match Wisconsin's stunning 84% decline, many states (including even “rust belt” states like Michigan, Massachusetts, and Ohio) have seen their rolls drop by more than half. Indeed, only Hawaii (hit hard by a drop in tourism due to Asia's economic woes) has seen its rolls increase. If recent studies are any guide, the rolls should continue to decline, as employers search for ways to find new entry-level job candidates. For example, a recent survey of more than 15,000 businesses by Manpower, Inc., found that more than 29% of companies expected to add staff in the fourth quarter of 1998, while less than 5% planned to reduce staff. More and more, businesses are hiring welfare recipients to fill these jobs. A survey by Wirthlin Worldwide of businesses hiring former welfare recipients found that 76% of them found former welfare recipients to be “good, productive employees.” Many groups point to this new work-first doctrine as being a benefit to welfare recipients and to society as a whole.

“There are some things we might like to change, but overall the law has been very beneficial,” said Neal Hogan, legislative director for the Catholic Alliance. “There is evidence that as parents find jobs, child abuse and neglect are reduced. Young men and women have had to rely more on families, and that provides an extra level of support.

That's much different than simply getting a check in the mail.” Hogan also noted that the law's emphasis on work and the reduced federal role in welfare could mean a bigger role for private charity and even a revival of spirituality for many people. “Federal welfare policy for years had the effect of relieving certain people from the responsibility of giving to the needy,” he said. “People thought they did not have give their money and time to service organizations, because they had done enough by paying their taxes. Now that the law requires welfare recipients to go to work, people are beginning to give more to the needy in their community. That has an effect not only on the people that are helped but also on the people doing the helping. You are never closer to God than when you are helping others, and I think that this may serve to bring people back to the faith.”

“There have been some silver linings with welfare reform,” according to Michael Brogioli, Director of the State Welfare Project at Catholic Charities USA, an organization that has some concerns with the direction welfare reform is taking. “We have seen that more people are volunteering. Many states are doing a very good job with welfare reform. People are being very creative in the way they deliver services. Reform has spawned innovation. These are all positives.”

A recent survey, however, raised warning flags for many Catholic groups. In January, Catholic Charities USA surveyed its parish social ministry leaders in 82 dioceses to monitor the impact of welfare reform on recipients seeking services. The survey found that 80 percent of responding parishes experienced increases in requests for food assistance, and more than half had increases in requests for housing assistance.

More than 25% reported an increase in need for child care. “We cannot prove that all these increases are due to welfare reform, but we can make a common-sense budget that they are probably linked,” said Brogioli, noting that while eligibility for food stamps remains unchanged, the budget for food stamps was cut. “In many ways, this issue is bigger than welfare reform. It's true that the rolls have been dropping, and many people have found jobs. But these figures indicate that there are still pockets of poverty out there that need real help.”

The U.S. Catholic Conference, which raised concerns about parts of the bill when it was passed and signed, says that there are still too many unanswered questions to declare the effort a success.

“The test is not whether people leave the roles, but whether they leave poverty and whether their kids grow up in dignity,” said John Carr of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. “People still need concert help. We need a real focus on work and a living wage. This is still an ecomomy that even in the best of times is still leaving people behind.”

Just as larger urban areas have seen the welfare rolls fall more slowly than faster growing suburban regions, individual dioceses have had different experiences with welfare reform. While many larger dioceses and archdioceses have found that requests for assistance have increased since the welfare law passed, some smaller ones have seen few changes.

“We do see more families asking for help with basic needs, like food and utilities, and we have even longer waiting lists for child care assistance,” according to Jack Smith, Deputy Director of Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia. “It has not been as dramatic as many of the doom and gloom predictions we had heard about, but there have been increases.”

He noted too that the first two-year limit on the receipt of welfare benefits (for families on the rolls at the time the state passed its welfare reform plan) comes into effect in Pennsylvania next March. Smith said that reports in Philadelphia indicate that up to 40,000 families could be forced off the rolls at that time.

“We have a thriving economy today, and welfare recipients are able to find jobs and that's good,” he said. “But when that time limit kicks in, we may be down to the hard-core welfare population, people who have fewer skills and are much less employable. That could cause a major problem.”

Suburban dioceses, many located in areas of high job growth, have not been hit as hard. “We expect increases every year based on demographics, and we have seen those, but we have not seen any great increases as a result of welfare reform,” said Michael O‘Rourke, associate director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Arlington, Va.

The diocese covers all of Northern Virginia, where unemployment is low. “We actually had prepared ourselves for a big jump in requests for assistance because of the new law, but we just have not seen one.”

The only change he has seen is a small increase in the percentage of those in homeless shelters who are mothers with children, as opposed to single men.

Michael Barbera writes from Washington, D.C.