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New York Daily News


Mission Creep on Welfare Reform

August 13, 2012

By Russell Sykes

Tough work requirements are important

The Obama administration quietly issued a new waiver last month that allows states to change the rules of how success is measured in welfare reform. Since the directive has come under attack, the administration has insisted that all it’s done is grant states more flexibility to help welfare recipients move to employment.

As one who administered New York’s welfare-to-work programs under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program over the course of many years, I think that the administration’s claim is not accurate or credible.

In the real world, Obama’s move could lead to real changes allowing fuzzier alternatives to replace the more clear and measurable work participation rates in place since TANF was enacted in 1996. Those rules require able-bodied adult welfare recipients to engage in 30 hours of defined work activities each week. They should not be rolled back.

New York, which for 16 years has emphasized actual work, short-term training and job placement, is a case study of how well the original rules work.

Major changes in New York emphasizing work and personal responsibility began with Gov. Mario Cuomo’s "Jobs First" program and accelerated over the years under all subsequent governors, including Andrew Cuomo. At the national level, TANF mirrored much of New York’s efforts by changing the culture of welfare—making it temporary and establishing clear expectations for benefit recipients.

Thanks to that approach, in the 16 years since welfare reform was enacted in New York, welfare caseloads here have dropped by nearly two-thirds—from 1.6 million to 570,000 people today. There has been a significant increase in the number of single female heads of households in the workforce. And, despite the prolonged recession, the poverty rate has stayed lower than it was before the reform.

Why does a "jobs first" strategy make such a difference? Because it focuses on getting people rapidly employed. It takes funds that result from lower caseloads that previously would have gone to ongoing welfare benefits and redirects them to employment supports when people get work.

This ensures that in New York, it pays much better to work than to get welfare. Wages are supplemented through refundable tax credits, food stamps and child support collections for working single parents.

In fact, New York’s generous efforts turn an $8.50-per-hour job ($17,680 annually) for a single-parent household of three in New York City into an effective annual income of $35,136, assuming a 40-hour work week. The specifics of the waiver program would let states repeat past failures.

For instance, options would include projects that test extending the time period in vocational education or for earning a credential. States could test multi-year career pathway models that combine education and work.

Been there, done that. Able-bodied adults in pre-TANF times could languish in training programs without job prospects. Combining work with education, while sounding good in theory, was usually a limited tag-along to classroom activities. Expectations were minimal.

HHS says it seeks to improve employment outcomes. But waivers could be approved to test approaches and methods other than those set forth in the law, including abandoning the 30-hour work requirement for some other measure. Nine states in 2009 were in penalty status for not meeting current work participation requirements, and they likely would jump at this chance

New York is not among those states only because it emphasizes real work and invests in post-TANF employment stability—particularly in New York City, where 60% of New York’s welfare caseload resides.

New York has also been a leader in providing people with one-time emergency benefits to avoid the need for full-time welfare enrollment.

This smart, timely dispersal of aid helps recipients find or keep a job instead. But as I read the rules written by the administration, it might not qualify for a waiver because it technically limits access to benefits. Apparently, ensuring people can get checks rather than avoid welfare is preferred by the administration.

In short, despite a major recession during which some unfairly claim our reformed welfare statute have not been responsive, the law remains a pinnacle, bipartisan accomplishment in social policy. And that’s because of its clear and strict demand that states get people working whenever and wherever possible.

This new administration proposal is being challenged legislatively in both houses of Congress as overstepping executive authority. If it survives, it’s fair to say that it could undermine TANF’s central goal of helping people get to work. That would be a truly bad idea.

Original Source:



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