Leaving welfare: Many find it's a soft landing

Time limits on aid are kicking in, but 'generous' states and strong economy lessen the impact.

Time's up.

For more than 36,000 welfare families across the United States, the clock that's been ticking on cash aid has expired - and at least 13 states have started cutting off monthly checks to recipients.

In Massachusetts, 5,000 families are slated to be cut today from the welfare rolls, followed next month by as many as 8,000 families in Louisiana - the latest steps in a historic dismantling of America's public-aid program for the poor.

But as time limits kick in this fall in states across the US, welfare reform has not created the doomsday scenario many expected. In fact, experts say, what's most notable is how mild the impact has been - so far.

"Almost every state that has hit its deadline ... has found that not much happens on that day," says Douglas Besharov, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

A major reason for the soft landing: the strong US economy, which has enabled people to leave the welfare rolls for the work force far more quickly than anyone anticipated. Massachusetts, for example, has cut its welfare caseload from a high of 102,993 families in 1993 to 61,310 today. Of the original 41,000 families facing today's deadline, about 9 in 10 are already off welfare, about half moving into jobs, state officials say.

As a result, states are ahead of schedule for meeting federal requirements and "can afford to be generous," says Charles Noble, a professor at California State University at Long Beach.

When Tennessee's Oct. 1 deadline rolled around, for example, only 800 of about 5,000 families lost their benefits. Florida extended benefits to almost all of its 1,216 families due to be cut. "There seems to be a consensus around the country," Mr. Besharov says. "No one is throwing people off welfare who are trying."

But some observers expect Massachusetts to be more of a stickler when it comes to cutting people off public aid. And welfare mothers themselves are of two minds about the merits of the state's new law.

Bridget Hicks, a Boston mother of two, has been on welfare since January, allowing her to stay home with her baby daughter. She believes she'll be able to move into a job before her welfare deadline.

"It allows new mothers to be more independent," she says of the new system. "Lots of them now have good jobs, even cars. They wouldn't have done it if they hadn't been pushed."

For Hicks, the clock doesn't start ticking on the two-year time limit until her daughter turns 2, which gives her time to plan.

But for Devon Young, time to plan is in short supply - along with just about everything else. Ms. Young and her infant daughter have been living with a relative in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood. But the relative is moving this month, and Young doesn't know where she'll stay. Because she has no fixed address, she can't receive welfare checks.

Moreover, because of Massachusetts' new family cap rules, her daughter - her seventh child - is ineligible for welfare. "They won't let me in a shelter, and they won't let me on welfare," she says. "What am I supposed to do?"

Stories like Young's show that, even if reform is not as heavy-handed as expected, individual cases of hardship are not hard to find. Some experts are concerned, too, that if the economy should sour and welfare rolls rise, states may crack down harder on deadlines.

In addition, most people still on welfare will likely prove difficult to place in jobs, experts say. Plus, under the federal law, requirements will tighten. Next year, 9 in 10 two-parent welfare families are required to be working, up from 7.5 in 10 this year.

To continue the reform momentum, states must introduce innovative programs and job-finding initiatives, experts say. Citing Wisconsin as an innovator, Dr. Noble notes it offsets stringent work requirements with generous transportation and child-care subsidies.

In fact, lack of reliable child care is often one of the biggest obstacles between women and work. While Massachusetts offers subsidized day care for a year after mothers return to work, Dick Powers at the state's Department of Transitional Assistance says many women work the evening shift or on weekends, when day-care centers typically are not open. He says child care is one factor the state will look at when granting extensions.

Critics of welfare reform say it creates a cycle of poverty, by forcing welfare recipients into low-paying, entry-level jobs rather than offering more education and training that can lead to higher-paying work. "This punitive poverty policy is causing greater suffering for the [state's] poor," says Jen Douglas of the Massachusetts Human Services Coalition in Boston. Many welfare recipients, she says, are being cut off a semester or two before receiving a degree that could be a ticket to a better job.

Mr. Powers says recipients knew how much time they had when they signed up for aid. "They were told the very first month that they would be wise to enroll in a program they could complete [in 24 months]," says Powers. "It's not like the rug is being swept out from under them."

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