In Hard Times, Welfare Cases Drop In Some States

Aug 18, 2011

Monday marks 15 years since President Clinton signed an overhaul of the nation's welfare system into law. The president said the measure wasn't perfect, but provided a historic opportunity to fix a system that didn't work.

"Today we are ending welfare as we know it," he said in a Rose Garden ceremony on Aug. 22, 1996. "But I hope this day will be remembered not for what it ended, but for what it began."

What it was supposed to begin was a program that would get the poor into the workforce and end their dependence on public aid.

In bad economic times, it was also supposed to provide a safety net. A new study finds, however, that in the past few years that hasn't always been the case.

Rising Unemployment, Less Welfare

Sheila Zedlewski, with the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., notes that unemployment rates went up 88 percent during the recession. But, she says, caseloads in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program — which welfare is now called — rose by only 14 percent.

"We think this is really a very weak response to such a high and prolonged unemployment rate," Zedlewski says. "And if you look across the country, states have very different experiences."

In some cases, the numbers are striking. While caseloads rose in most states during the recession, they actually dropped in 13 states. In Arizona, for example, where joblessness shot up 134 percent, the number of households getting cash assistance went down 48 percent, according to an Urban Institute report.

Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution says this was not the intent of Congress when it changed the law. He helped craft welfare reform as a lead Republican staffer on Capitol Hill.

Haskins says the program has done well getting people into the workforce over the years, but that its response as a safety net during the recession has raised a serious question.

"Can we have a cash program that is pro-work and has tough work requirements, but also will help people get back on the rolls and get cash during hard times because they can't find employment?" he asks.

Assistance From Other Sources?

Haskins says other safety net programs, such as unemployment insurance and supplemental nutrition assistance, or food stamps, responded a whole lot better to the bad economy.

In fact, the huge growth in those programs is one reason people think that welfare caseloads didn't go up more — because some struggling families were able to get other help.

Haskins also says that getting people off welfare appears to have become a goal in itself for some states.

"On its face, [they think] caseloads [are] low, therefore more people are working," he says. "Well, we know that's not true."

Still, TANF has become a ripe target for cash-strapped states. Some have tightened eligibility requirements; others have reduced benefits. Arizona, for example, cut the lifetime limit for aid from five years to two.

Clarence Carter, who runs Arizona's Department of Economic Security, says the new limit is the main reason for his state's caseload decline.

"The governor and Legislature want there to be an aggressive, urgent move to try to move these families, who so desperately need it, through the system and not have them reside in it," Carter says.

His main focus now is job training and other efforts to find people work — although he admits in Arizona, as elsewhere, unemployment remains discouragingly high.

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