Welfare reform's biggest test begins

With recession hitting the poor, a five-year time cap on welfare kicks in for some.

Dulce Severino just hit her five-year limit on federal welfare benefits. Unless she can qualify for a state program that would prolong her benefits, she's not quite sure how she'll feed her two kids.

Until October, the single mom also had a factory job, but the pay was so low that she continued to get federal aid. Then she was laid off.

Across the nation, as five-year time limits kick in according to the 1996 welfare-reform law, thousands of other long-term recipients of aid find themselves in Ms. Severino's position: unemployed in an economic downturn and confused about their future.

Their plight highlights that welfare reform, until now largely hailed as a success, has entered a new, difficult phase. Most states are trying to cushion the impact of time limits, using a provision in the federal law that allows them to exempt up to 20 percent of their caseloads. But not all are. Thousands of people in Ohio, for example, have already been forced off public assistance.

And even in states like New York - which has begun shifting more than 30,000 welfare recipients to a state-based program - some see holes in the safety net.

"The fact is that on the ground level, there's a lot of confusion, a lot of people are being denied benefits, and exemptions are not being granted," says Barbara Blum, a welfare expert at Columbia University in New York.

The fate of people like Severino, coupled with concerns about the ability of state and local governments to shoulder financial burdens once federal aid stops, is prompting some experts to call for a rethinking of 1996 law's time limits.

Welfare rolls plunged

The act's achievements have received wide publicity.

Welfare rolls are down more than 60 percent nationwide over the past five years, and many credit the five-year limit with motivating former welfare recipients to find jobs.

But others contend that the time cap is arbitrary and unrealistic, and they warn of an impending disaster if the recession deepens. They are among a growing group of advocates and welfare experts who want Congress to take a hard look at the issue when welfare reform comes up for reauthorization next year.

Even some conservatives are questioning the advisability of maintaining rigid time limits.

"We shouldn't be in the situation where we take any parent who legitimately can't find a private-sector job and say to them, 'You're over this time limit, so you're out of luck,' " says the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector, who was a key architect of welfare reform. "It's much more compassionate if you have a universal work or constructive activity requirement. With that, time limits become almost ... irrelevant."

Under the 1996 law, states are responsible for fashioning their own assistance programs within the federal framework. The result is a varied patchwork of rules and programs around the country. Some states opted for shorter time limits and fewer exemptions. Ohio, which chose a three-year limit, provides the clearest indication yet of the effect on families forced off the rolls.

The first group of long-term welfare recipients hit their time limit in October of last year. A study by Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland found that the vast majority of the affected 4,000 families in northeastern Ohio are living below the poverty level. They often live in overcrowded housing conditions with deteriorating family relations.

"I don't think we intended to pull the rug out from under these people, and it should be revisited," says study coauthor Claudia Coulton.

Nonetheless, Ms. Coulton sees some value in the time limits.

She says they forced leaders at the local level to provide more and better job training and support services to help people get off welfare.

"But we have people who couldn't benefit from those services," she says. "It's almost as if they've been sacrificed for others."

In New York, time limits have raised another issue: the cost to state and local governments. The state's constitution requires that it take care of the indigent.

The challenge in NYC

On Dec. 1, 36,000 people in New York City, including Severino, hit their five-year federal time limit. Some 6,000 were exempted because they were either disabled or caring for a sick member of their household, according to the city's Human Resources Administration (HRA). The rest are supposed to be transferred to the state's new Safety Net Program, which was designed specifically for people who hit their five-year federal limit.

But the costs to state and city governments come as both are facing budget deficits in the billions.

While HRA insists that 90 percent of the people who have hit their time limits have been successfully transferred to the new state program, advocates for the poor question that. "People aren't being properly informed about their right to access the statewide program," says Gregory Heller of ACORN, an advocacy group for low-income people.

Severino, for example, says she received a letter informing her that she had reached the five-year limit, but that no one ever told her she could still get help from the state. She is now trying to apply.

And outside the East Harlem Job Center earlier this month, many clients were confused and worried about the changes. But many also support the overall reform effort, which for for New York City includes a strict work requirement.

"Too many girls were growing up thinking they could have babies and the system would just take care of them," says longtime aid recipient Crystal, a mother who is finishing a college degree.

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