Taking Stock of Bay State's Program

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"There are real housing implications" to the cuts, Ms. Wright says. Any welfare recipient who lives in subsidized housing pays 30 percent of her income in rent. As her income drops because of sanctions, housing units collect less money to keep up the facilities. As time passes, she predicts, subsidized housing will fall into disrepair.

One of the biggest problems welfare advocates have with the reform is its inconsistency with other state agencies.

"The state has to be system-ready to make this work," says Ms. Strom, who works with teenage mothers. As it stands, a teen mother gets help from several agencies, but their policies are often contradictory, Strom says. The welfare law requires a teenage mother to live at home with her parents. But if the girl has a restraining order against her stepfather, for example, the Department of Social Services will take her child away if she moves home.

Local authorities also do not uniformly report data that the welfare office uses, Wright says. The state can reduce welfare mothers' checks if the children do not attend school. But the Worcester, Mass., school system reports all absences, without distinguishing excused absences from unexcused, to the welfare office. The Cambridge, Mass., system, on the other hand, reports none.

"It's like we're jiggling against the other regulations in the system," Strom says. "We haven't sat down and talked about how to make this whole thing work."

But the American Enterprise Institute's Mr. Besharov says criticism of states' early welfare experiments must be seen in a larger context.

"What the experience of the last few months shows is that if states want to, they can do this," he says.

The workfare program - which has been phasing in since November '95 - works like this:

*Able-bodied recipients of Aid to Families With Dependent Children with school-age children must find work or perform community service for 20 hours a week. They can waive the requirement if a child is disabled or if a recipient was in college before Jan. 1, 1995.

* Single mothers younger than 18 must live with their families and attend high school or its equivalent. Teen-living centers are available for

girls who feel it is unsafe to live at home.

* AFDC recipients lose an average of $90 of their income if they fail to give the state information about fathers of their children. They are also docked if their children are not immunized or don't attend school.

* The state will cover Medicaid and child-care costs for one year after a welfare recipient leaves the rolls.

With passage of the federal welfare-reform law last summer, other policies have been added:

*AFDC recipients and their children will be cut off the rolls after two years, regardless of earnings at that time. The clock began ticking Dec. 2, 1996.

*Some homeless families no longer can count the time they spend looking for housing as part of their 20-hour-a-week work requirement.

*No AFDC recipient gets additional money if she has another child.

Massachusetts is still weighing how it will provide support for legal immigrants who receive food stamps and Supplemental Security Income. As of July 1997, the federal government is expected to discontinue these and other benefits for legal immigrants.

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