Welfare reform: one size doesn't fit all

Seven years ago, Congress enacted landmark legislation that reformed the nation's welfare system and changed the lives of millions of Americans. But attempts to reauthorize this legislation remain stalemated in the House and Senate over two key issues: work requirements and child-care dollars.

The House and the Senate agree that the share of those on welfare required to work should increase from 50 percent to 70 percent by 2007. They disagree on the number of weekly hours of work that should be required and the types of activity that can count as work.

New findings from the Urban Institute's 2002 national survey on the recent experiences of welfare families can help give lawmakers a reality check. Most families that turn to welfare are significantly disadvantaged. They can't find work in a weak economy, they need help overcoming or living with serious employment hurdles, and they can't make ends meet without a safety net. A reauthorized welfare program must reflect these underlying realities.

The House proposal assumes that appropriate jobs are still readily available and that states can get recipients to work more hours without spending a great deal more on work supports such as child care. Those receiving welfare, primarily single mothers with children, would have to work a 40-hour week - up from 30 hours under current law. Twenty-four of those 40 hours would have to be in a paid or unpaid job rather than work-related activities, such as training and education.

Under the House proposal, the federal government would increase its mandatory child-care funding by $1 billion over five years to make it easier for states to meet these more stringent requirements.

In contrast, the Senate Finance Committee assumed in its 2002 bill that welfare recipients will face difficulties in finding jobs. It maintained the current requirement of 30 hours per week of work (20 hours for mothers of preschoolers) and gave states more flexibility to count education and training as work activities. The Senate bill also gave states an additional $5.5 billion for child care over five years.

The Urban Institute survey shows that the early employment success of welfare reform deteriorated somewhat as the economy weakened. Thirty-two percent of welfare recipients were in paid jobs in 1999. That number dropped to 28 percent by 2002. Employment had also declined among those who had just come off the welfare rolls, slipping from 50 percent in 1999 to 42 percent in 2002.

Moreover, those who left welfare between 2000 and 2002 were likelier to be subsisting in families with no employed member or disability payments than those who left welfare between 1997 and 1999. Those who left welfare more recently were also likelier to return to it.

As it reconsiders work requirements, Congress needs to keep in mind that mothers on welfare continue to report significant barriers to employment. Many lack a high school education and enough work experience to interest employers, and they are dogged by physical or mental health problems. The 2002 Urban Institute survey found that half of the mothers on welfare for two or more years had at least two serious barriers. Small wonder few in this group were working at paid jobs.

The survey did reveal some bright spots. Families that left welfare between 2000 and 2002 are taking better advantage of government safety-net programs, and families receiving these supports are more likely to stay off welfare.

More in this group reported receiving government health insurance and food stamps in 2002 than when new welfare reforms first took hold. This increase reflects both improved state policies that help families tap into these programs and this vulnerable population's greater needs in an economic downturn.

Significantly increasing the number of hours welfare recipients must work will be truly difficult in an uncertain economy. Focusing narrowly on moving more recipients into jobs - or off welfare without jobs - will divert states' fixed number of welfare dollars away from policies that help families access critical supports and stay afloat.

Congress must face the fact that not all the highly disparate, vulnerable families on welfare are ready or able to work a 40-hour week. States have already figured this out. Most have been using their welfare funds to tailor services to their caseloads' varying needs - for paid work but also for healthcare, child care, and efforts to build job skills.

States need more flexibility to decide which mix of services best addresses welfare recipients' barriers to employment, increases access to work supports, and results in securing a job. What isn't needed is a new, one-size-fits-all set of federal welfare requirements unlikely to help the least skilled and most troubled welfare recipients find work.

Sheila R. Zedlewski directs the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Pamela Loprest is a senior research associate in the Income and Benefits Policy Center. The opinions are those of the authors alone.

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