Taking Stock of Bay State's Program
To those who measure progress by the number of people leaving the welfare rolls, Massachusetts's reform effort is a success story. In a year, the number of families receiving Aid to Families With Dependent Children has dropped by about 12 percent - from more than 90,000 to roughly 80,000.Skip to next paragraph
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But if the yardstick of success is self-sufficiency for the poor, the outcome of the Massachusetts reform is less certain. In fact, the number of welfare recipients who no longer get aid because they now earn too much is the same as it was a year ago. So, why aren't more welfare recipients finding jobs, critics ask, and where are those who drop off the rolls going if not to work?
In the laboratory of welfare reform, Massachusetts is among a handful of states at the forefront of America's biggest social experiment since the New Deal. It has imposed the most stringent workfare standards in the country and has put in place many policies other states are considering. Its successes and stumbles offer an early look at what's working - and what isn't.
The welfare office offers this summary of progress to date: The number of families receiving aid is the lowest it has been since 1973, when the office began keeping records. Some 14,000 welfare recipients, or 17.5 percent of the caseload, are in paying jobs supplemented by welfare checks (compared with 7,800 a year ago). Another 4,000, or 5 percent of the caseload, are performing community service (compared with 1,000 last year).
The Massachusetts plan is also applauded for the transitional help it offers - a year of Medicaid and child care - after recipients leave welfare for work.
"Massachusetts is doing just what the advocates said it should do - plow money into child care," says Douglas Besharov, an American Enterprise Institute scholar. "Now [critics] are saying it's not enough. It's never enough."
In efforts to find out what has happened to people who left the rolls, the Massachusetts welfare office commissioned a study to track 1,700 families whose cases were closed last September and October. The study shows a full 49 percent are working and earning too much to qualify for welfare. Another 19 percent dropped off the rolls because of new child-support money coming in, a parent returning to the home, or support from family and friends. Fourteen percent moved out of state, and most of the remainder were reapplying for aid or were no longer eligible (for reasons unrelated to welfare reform). Only 2 percent went unaccounted for.
But critics say the numbers tell only part of the story, leaving out evidence of homelessness on the rise and families bounced between conflicting state rules.
"You have to look at indicators that are broader than just the numbers of people receiving assistance," says Joyce Strom of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, an agency the state set up to help teen mothers after they are cut off from aid.
In fact, the state has penalized some welfare recipients who have not met the new requirements. The state Department of Transitional Assistance says 2,080 recipients (or 13 percent of those required by law to work) have had at least $90 cut from their monthly benefits. Almost 600 teen mothers have had their checks reduced.
The impact of those cuts is beginning to be seen in homeless shelters and food pantries, says Betsy Wright, director of the Massachusetts Human Services Coalition. Catholic Charities of Boston has reported a 31 percent increase in demand at its food pantries. In October, the Greater Boston shelter system tracked an 18 percent increase from the same time in 1995 and a 45 percent increase over 1992.