A recent New York Times article noted that despite the failing economy, welfare applications have not gone up. This is contrary to trends in the 1990’s — prior to the overhaul of the system — and against common sense; when jobs dry up we expect folks to seek financial relief. Paradoxically, applications for food stamps have gone up as the economy has soured.
There are many explanations for this phenomenon. Some point to the fact that when welfare reform was implemented in 1996, the funding formula was changed so that states are wholly responsible for any expansion of the program, and increases in welfare payments are unlikely as states face deficits and funding crunches. (The food stamp program, on the other hand, is paid for by the federal government.) Others cite the cultural shift that occurred with welfare reform, making even very poor, out of work women unwilling to seek assistance. Still others point to the administrative hurdles posed by the welfare system, leaving even needy people unlikely to seek assistance.
Many agree that the system is not doing what it is supposed to. As Ron Haskins – FOC senior editor and one of the authors of the 1996 welfare bill — noted in the NYT piece, “There is ample reason to be concerned here…The overall structure is not working the way it was designed to work. We would expect, just on the face it, that when a deep recession happens, people could go back on welfare…When we started this, Democratic and Republican governors alike said, ‘We know what’s best for our state; we’re not going to let people starve’….And now that the chips are down, and unemployment is going up, most states are not doing enough to help families get back on the rolls.”
The fact that welfare rolls are stagnant is of particular concern for the most vulnerable families – those for whom steady work is already a challenge, even in a good economy. As Rebecca Blank notes in her article, “Improving the Safety Net for Single Mothers Who Face Serious Barriers to Work,
” 20 to 24 percent of all low-income mothers (under 200% of the poverty line) were not connected to welfare or work in 2004 – when the economy was much stronger.
These “disconnected women” are likely to report multiple barriers to work: less education, younger children, higher rates of poor mental and physical health, higher rates of substance abuse, and a greater history of being victims of domestic violence. They are more likely to have been sanctioned for non-work or reached the federally imposed five year time limit.
Blank proposes creating a new “Temporary and Partial Work Waiver Program,” which would emphasize work, but also provide the necessary safety net and recognize that not all of these “disconnected women” will be able to work fulltime. Such a program would be an extension of the current welfare program and would include case-managers to assess health, skill level, and income; link to services; and help apply for other relief programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.
As an alternative, the SSI program, which serves disabled Americans and is paid for with federal dollars, could be altered to allow for more temporary or partial disability determinations. The current program is something of an “all or nothing” program; many disconnected women have disabilities that are not permanent or severe enough to qualify them for benefits.
Whatever the policy solution, Blank notes a “public conversation about women for whom welfare-to-work efforts have failed is long overdue.” This is true not only for women with multiple barriers, but in a down economy, perhaps for the larger low-income population as well.