States urged to improve welfare


Published: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
WASHINGTON - Kevin McGuire estimates that 18,000 welfare recipients in Maryland have entered the work force during the past two years.
"If that's failing, I'm guilty," said McGuire, who oversees the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
But under proposed changes to the nation's welfare laws, McGuire and his employees will have a lot of work to do over the coming year, or Washington could withhold millions of dollars.
Congress is expected soon to approve legislation that requires states to place at least half of their welfare families in jobs or approved training programs.
Only 10 states meet that requirement, according to the latest statistics compiled by the federal government. Some state are not close: Maryland, 9.1 percent; Pennsylvania, 9.9 percent; and West Virginia, 14.2 percent.
Kansas leads with a work participation rate of 87.9 percent. The other nine states meeting the threshold are Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
The data comes from the 2003 budget year, and some states, including Maryland, say their participation rates have improved since then.
The House is expected to consider the proposed changes on Feb. 1. The Senate has passed the legislation, largely along party lines. The overhaul of the temporary aid program for families was attached to a bill that would trim government spending by $40 billion over five years.
Wade Horn, the Bush administration's point man on welfare issues, said he is confident that states will do better if told they must.
"There is really good evidence that when states put their mind to it, they can dramatically increase the work participation rate," said Horn, assistant secretary for families and children.
Horn cites Georgia as his prime example. In two years, it went from 10 percent to a 55 percent work participation rate.
Beverly J. Walker, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Services, said the state is doing even better than Horn gave it credit for, with 65 percent of families participating in work as of October.
Some people fear that states will improve their rates primarily by kicking people out of the aid program when they miss a job interview or fail to show up for job training. Walker said Georgia used to rely on that approach, too.
"We were focused on getting caseload reduction any way we could," she said.
Work participation rates improved when Georgia moved away from its policy of "two strikes and you're out." Georgia now reduces a recipient's benefits gradually instead of dropping them abruptly.
As of November, only 366 of about 39,000 people were under some form of sanction under the temporary aid program in the state, she said.
The state also made better use of technology that allowed counties to track each client and to measure one country's performance against others, Walker said.
If Congress moves ahead, states would have until Oct. 1 to get their work participation requirements up to 50 percent. They also would have until Oct. 1, 2007, before penalties would kick in. Depending upon a state's performance, the federal Administration for Children and Families could reduce Washington's contribution and require the state to make up the difference.
The latest statistics show the average work participation rate for all states and territories is 31 percent.
McGuire said he believes the participation rates can be a misleading measurement of effectiveness because they do not reflect some part-time work and can ignore other programs that recipients may participate in, such as substance abuse counseling.
Current law also says the states should be at 50 percent for work participation, but states get credit for the caseload reductions they made in the 1990s and early 2000s. As a result, most states can have participation rates in the teens and meet federal requirements.
A report by the Democratic staff on the House Ways and Means Committee said the new participation rates would pressure states to cut families off assistance.
"It will encourage them to deny assistance to needy families without regard to whether they have secured employment," the Democrats said.
The Democrats also cited a Congressional Budget Office estimate that states will have to spend an additional $8.4 billion over the next five years to meet the new requirements. But the Democrats say the bill provides no extra money for job training and that an additional $1 billion in child care doesn't keep pace with inflation, let alone pay for greater demand for child care.
President Bush sought to increase the number of hours that participants had to work in order to get cash assistance and other benefits, such as child care or transportation. But that idea was cast aside during negotiations between the Senate and House.
Horn said the administration supports the welfare revisions proposed, even without the additional work hours.
He said the problem, as the administration viewed it, was not that too many people were working part time. Rather, too many people were not working at all.
"The big problem was that 56 percent of TANF recipients are not doing anything, not one hour over the past month in any activity, and to get them to be doing 20 or 30 hours of work a week would be a big achievement," Horn said.
--- On the Net: Administration for Children and Families: http://www.acf.hhs.gov

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