Speaker discusses new welfare reform policy

by Kelly Hildebrandt

A new welfare reform policy gives recipients an offer they can’t refuse, keynote speaker Dr. LaDonna Pavetti told a crowd of more than 100 welfare recipients, business leaders and community activists Friday at the Sabathani Center in Minneapolis.
“In most cases the offer is an offer to look for a job,” said Pavetti, the senior researcher at Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.
Pavetti’s speech, “Welfare Reform: A Work in Progress,” discussed the changes created by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 and its effects.
The event was sponsored by the University Law School’s Institute on Race and Poverty, and Minnesota Public Radio Civic Journalism Initiative.
Under the new welfare plan, recipients have a lifetime limit of 60 months on welfare and are required to be working within the first 24 months of going on it.
In Minnesota, there are about 47,000 welfare cases and about 100,000 people on welfare, said john powell, executive director at the Institute on Race and Poverty.
Pavetti told the audience the focus on employment is different from the offer they’ve made in the past, which was for people to gain an education and job training skills.
“The focus on looking for a job … is taking any job regardless of the pay or hours,” Pavetti said, adding that once recipients procure a job they can seek education.
But powell said the shift away from education is a mistake. “In terms of getting jobs you don’t need an education,” he said. “The type of job you get though, is not going to be the kind of job that’s going to pull you out of poverty.”
The new plan is intended to make employment more attractive than welfare assistance, Pavetti said, adding that in the past welfare benefits were docked almost dollar for dollar when a recipient went to work.
With the new plan, states are trying to help families keep more of their income and are creating more stringent penalties for not following regulations, Pavetti told the audience.
Pavetti said recipients break the regulations at the consequence of their families because in most states failure to comply results in a total loss of assistance.
Another issue addressed by audience members was racial inequity within the system. “You’ve got people of color that are very skillful and because they are people of color, then they’re turned down,” said Loreatha Johnson, a member of a mentor program for welfare recipients called Sister to Sister.
Powell said racial inequities are created through structural problems because the plan is more sensitive to needs of white recipients. “Whites go on welfare and off welfare much faster than blacks and Latinos,” powell said, adding that “Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be in urban areas, (where) jobs are not.”
Pavetti said the new time limits are an important change. “Time limits are what really brought the plan together,” Pavetti said. “They are what has created a sense of urgency in the community and welfare office.”
Pavetti said states can make shorter time limits and exempt 20 percent of their cases from the chosen limit. They can also choose to create longer time limits by using state funds to cover additional expenses.
States now receive a fixed amount of funding through the new welfare plan. Due to a decrease in cases many states have a surplus of funds, Pavetti said.
Although it is still too early to tell whether the plan is successful, Pavetti said there have some positive indications.
“Caseloads have gone down dramatically,” Pavetti said, adding that it is hard to determine whether families left because they were able to support themselves or because they lost their benefits.
Pavetti said Minnesota cases have decreased 14 percent and the number of single mothers in the work force has been increasing steadily since 1993.