Evidence that many on welfare welcome reform

Despite new hardships, welfare recipients say repairs were overdue. But

Standing in the bright sun on 135th Street in Harlem early this spring, Shante kept adjusting the blanket around the chin of her two-month-old baby, Sierra.

It was her third trip to New York City's Hamilton Job Center to request temporary assistance. Officials gave her what she believed was an impossible choice: To become eligible for any kind of help, she had to leave her child in someone else's care and go to a city job center on a full-time basis to look for work.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," she said, shaking her head and making it clear it was not a choice she relished.

During the past three years, millions of welfare recipients across the United States have faced similar dilemmas as they grappled with tough new work requirements and time limits on assistance.

But surprisingly, a new study of some of America's largest cities has found that caseworkers and welfare recipients agree on one thing: As difficult it has been to be part of the largest social transformation in the past 50 years, the reform was long overdue.

"They all see it as an opportunity," says Gordon Berlin of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, the New York-based group that is conducting the study.

"Recipients see it as a way to get help finding work - [many] share middle-class values." This is the first report in a multiyear study designed to track the impact of the 1996 welfare-reform bill on some of the nation's largest urban areas - Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami-Dade County, and Philadelphia.

Before the bill was passed, they had the least experience with reform efforts and some of the largest, most difficult populations with which to deal. Nonetheless, the study found they made the transition with surprising speed and ease.

Not only have these cities transformed their message to emphasize welfare is only a temporary help on the way to a job, but they have also managed to change the services they offer, Mr. Berlin says.

"But they haven't really yet changed themselves from agencies that support people when they don't work, to being agencies that support them when they do work," he adds.

For instance, many transitional benefits designed to support workers who are newly off the roles are still not reaching them. The benefits include Medicaid, food stamps, child-care benefits, and a tax credit for low- income people.

That's partly because welfare recipients were accustomed to receiving those benefits after filling out one form, Berlin says. They "think of welfare as being three things, the cash grant, food stamps, and their Medicaid card; they think it all comes together."

As a result, when they leave welfare and the stigma associated with it, they often don't respond to anything the welfare department sends them, and they lose benefits for which they may still be eligible.

"Another reason is that the states still have a lot to do in terms of separating Medicaid and food stamps from the welfare system," says Berlin.

One of the most difficult and still unanswered questions is what's happened to the millions of recipients who have simply left the roles or failed to meet various state work requirements.

Researchers are now trying to track them down, and hope to have an answer by 2001.

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