Wyoming's two-edged welfare experiment

State moves 90 percent off the dole, but many remain in poverty.

Susie Armajo, a Northern Arapaho who grew up on the Wind River Indian Reservation, was barely getting by. The young single mother was supporting her three children on $320 a month in welfare plus food-stamp aid. And then things seemingly got worse.

Under a new welfare-to-work program, the state of Wyoming put a cap on the number of months residents could receive benefits. So Ms. Armajo, her time just about up, went off the dole and found a job in child care.

The position paid a modest $6.50 an hour. Eventually, she enrolled full time in a community college to improve her job prospects. Today she does have a better-paying position and the hope of a meaningful career - but it didn't happen before going through a long night of hardship and many days away from her kids.

Armajo's story illustrates how one state - and in some ways, the nation - is doing eight years after one of the biggest welfare reforms in modern history.

Since the sweeping program was enacted during the Clinton administration in 1996, states have tried varying mandates to move people from the welfare rolls into the workplace. The idea was to reduce the amount of money paid out in public subsidies and empower people to be more self-sufficient.

By these standards, no state has been more successful - or punitive, depending on your point of view - than Wyoming. It has reduced the number of people on welfare by a full 90 percent. The national average is 52 percent. A mere 332 Wyoming households now receive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) - down from 4,970 households in 1996.

Yet many of the people who have moved on haven't found utopia on the high plains. Some have landed jobs that don't pay enough. Others are having trouble getting child care. Still others are finding themselves in the worst of both worlds - unable to find work and ineligible for public assistance.

Indeed, critics say the welfare-to-work program has contributed to the number of poor in Wyoming, where nearly 10,000 families live below the poverty line in a state of just 500,000. More than 10,000 families receive foods stamps, and more than 35,000 individuals receive Medicaid.

"What we've created is more working poor, and people struggling even harder to make ends meet," says Deanna Frey, executive director of the Wyoming Children's Action Alliance, a child-advocacy group.

Single mothers - the population welfare reform was most geared toward - remain among the most disadvantaged in Wyoming: Thirty-eight percent are living at or below the poverty level, estimates a US Census Report.

Although more pronounced in Wyoming, the outcome here for families is consistent with what's seen elsewhere in the US, according to Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at University of California at Berkeley. For example, even as 3 million American households have been moved off the welfare rolls, "child poverty rates are still inching upwards," he notes.

Mr. Fuller, codirector of a study that has been tracking the lives of 700 single mothers during the past five years, believes that gauging the success of welfare reform turns on the question of what is trying to be achieved. "If the goal is to move people off welfare, the policy has been a stellar success," he says. "If the goal is to improve the lives of family and children, it's been a stunning failure."

Others don't put the results quite that starkly. They do see a dramatic reduction in caseloads - even exceeding expectations of some proponents. But they also think there as has been at least some meaningful employment of welfare recipients, fostering more self-sufficiency. "The data are coming in even better than was predicted. Caseloads are way down. Employment of single mothers is far above what it had been," says Rebecca Blank, a labor economist and a deanat the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "I think you have to give some credit to these policies."

From the outset, Wyoming took the mandates of welfare reform seriously. In other states, recipients receive benefits first and then must prove they are striving to meet work requirements. Wyoming is the only state that demands recipients meet work requirements one month before the first payment - that means 40 hours a week must be spent job hunting, in work-related training, or volunteering.

Yet in a state where one-third of the jobs pay poverty wages, the premise that any job is better than no job is questionable, say those who advocate for the poor. "Many people we see are working two or three jobs. And they're still not making it," says Bill Buckles, executive director of Community Action of Laramie County, a nonprofit agency. Forcing people to take a job without addressing the issue of their qualifications usually means they'll end up in a job where they can't advance, he says, Moreover, some can't earn enough to support their family, but neither can they qualify for benefits under the new strictures.

That's been true for Cody, a single mother of 7-month-old twin boys (she requested that her last name be omitted). Although she receives $400 a month in food stamps, she hasn't received benefits under TANF because she is caring for her children fulltime and not seeking employment. For now she is relying on family members for her day-to-day needs. "Thank God they're there," she says. "I don't know what someone in my situation would do without family."

While resources are still limited, Wyoming is developing programs geared toward helping women like Cody. One example is Our Families Our Future, a nonprofit agency that trains single mothers for higher-wage nontraditional careers, such as truck driving and carpentry. But because the state-partnered agency is funded partly with TANF dollars, it can train only TANF-eligible women.

The Department of Workforce Services, the state's newest agency, also is working to develop vocational training and employment services throughout Wyoming. Yet in many parts of this large, mostly rural state, higher-paying jobs are not often available, even for the qualified.

Around Jackson Hole, in wealthy Teton County, jobs are plentiful. But they're almost exclusively in the service industry - at hotels, restaurants, and ski resorts. And for those with young children, the dearth of child care in Wyoming is another major obstacle to employment.

Still, there are signs of hope for Wyoming's most disadvantaged, tales of lives turned around - such as Armajo.

With her two-year-degree in human services, Armajo now works full time in the Family Services office in Lander. Her income has quadrupled. She's also working toward a bachelor's degree, taking classes two evenings a week. Although life as a single, working mother is "hard," she remains hopeful about the future. "It makes me feel better to be working at something, and improving myself," says Armajo.

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