MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — A team of researchers issued a warning Monday that new welfare policies across the country are likely to throw the poor even deeper into poverty.
Only 14 states have adopted policies that will improve the lives of people on welfare. Two-thirds of the states’ policies will make it more difficult for the poverty-stricken to become financially independent, according to the study by the Center on Hunger and Poverty at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
“If the promise of welfare reform is to improve the economic viability of the poor, it is a promise largely broken,” said J. Larry Brown, center director.
Vermont is an exception, the survey said, because its new welfare system was designed to give beneficiaries the support they need to find a job, including child care and transportation assistance.
Minnesota’s new system requires most parents receiving welfare to either find a job or get some training. Parents who work receive help with child care and health care, and they receive a wage supplement to ensure that working pays more than welfare. Those who don’t comply can lose up to 30 percent of their welfare checks.
Most states, however, are like last-place Idaho, where an adequate support system was not adopted, the researchers said.
Tufts surveyed all 50 states by telephone, mail and e-mail about how they implemented the new federal welfare law. Its primary conclusion: “The majority are failing and failing badly,” according to a report released in Washington.
Researchers evaluated 34 policy decisions that the federal government left to the states under new welfare laws adopted in 1996. Those areas include providing child care, expanding health coverage, and offering education and job training. Most new state policies are more punitive than what they replaced, the study said.
“It is a sobering fact,” said John T. Cook, Tuft’s research director. “I think a part of what we hope the report will accomplish is to send a wake-up call to the nation, to those states … who have the inclination to look that they are not, in fact, using the new prerogatives that they were given to actually accomplish the central promise of welfare reform and that is to improve the lives of poor people.”
States are doing the worst in improving the eligibility of the poor for benefits, increasing the amount of those benefits and in requiring work. Most states, however, are doing a better job of helping welfare recipients get child care so they can search for and hold down a job. And every state is allowing people to keep more of what they earn or to invest in some kind of tax-free savings.
States in the Northeast scored the highest in the study and states in the South and Midwest did the worst.
The best possible score on the scale devised by Tufts was a 22. Vermont scored a 12 and second-place Oregon scored a 7.5. The worst possible score was a negative 38 and Idaho received a negative 15.5. The next worst was Wyoming with a negative 12.
Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said he believed his state scored so well because new welfare policies were adopted before the federal government required it. Vermont approached the issue with the “motivation so every child can grow up in a household that can make a contribution.
“What we do that’s different is we don’t cut off all benefits; we cut off cash benefits, which means people don’t get kicked out in the street,” Dean said. “The biggest danger in this is people won’t be able to find a job. If you can’t find a job in our system you can continue to get your grant if you work in a public nonprofit or a private nonprofit job.”
The scores attempted to compare each state’s welfare policies from before the 1996 federal law was adopted to the new versions.
There are two primary goals behind welfare reform, said Jack Shonkoff, dean of the Heller Graduate School in Social Welfare at Brandeis University. One is to decrease the welfare rolls and the other is to improve the finances of the poor.
“Very often people confuse the two goals,” Shonkoff said.
“How you do it makes the difference in terms of whether people are more or less likely to be independent,” he said. “If people need more support and more time to be independent and you don’t give it to them, their economic situation will get worse.”