Wednesday, March 30, 2005
Why welfare, 10 years after effective reforms, is with us still
This week is the tenth anniversary of former Gov. George Allen’s welfare reform in Virginia. Virginia’s initiative, like the federal welfare reform that followed a year later, required all able-bodied welfare recipients to work in exchange for the benefits they received from the government.
What exactly was the reform? Has it worked 10 years later?
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, welfare reform nationally helped move 4.7 million Americans from welfare dependency to self-sufficiency within three years of enactment in 1996, and the number of welfare caseloads has declined by 54% since that time.
According to Del. Bob McDonnell, the person who spearheaded Virginia’s reform bill in the House of Delegates, “Our welfare rolls are down significantly, giving thousands of Virginians the opportunity to lead self-sufficient lives becoming role models for their children and saving Virginia taxpayers tens of millions of tax dollars.”
Virginia’s welfare system has three main components of assistance: food stamps, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) (commonly called “the welfare check”). There are several other state, federal and charitable welfare programs, such as free school lunches and utilities assistance, but I will focus on the main three.
Understand that this is a basic explanation, and that there are many exceptions to the rules. I am also citing the rules for people who are able to work, not disabled, elderly, etc.
TANF (“tan-iff”) is the main cash assistance component of welfare. Welfare reform limits the time of this assistance and requires able recipients to work in exchange for this check. TANF offers a maximum lifetime limit of 48 months of assistance, rather than the perpetual generation-to-generation assistance for which old welfare programs were known. After the first 24 months of assistance, there is a mandatory break in assistance for at least 12 months.
People must have children younger than 18 years old living in the household to receive TANF.
Able-bodied parents must search for a job, unless they have children younger than 18 months in the household. If they can’t find work, then they are required to work in a nonprofit or public sector job.
TANF has a job skills training and placement program to help recipients find permanent work. Assistance includes clothing for interviews and the workplace, transportation expenses to get to work and child care.
Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. and Virginia Tech conducted an evaluation of welfare reform in Virginia in 2002 to find out what happened to families that reached TANF’s first 24-month time limit.
The report showed that nearly all parents found work after the time limit ran out. In addition, despite low wages, their average hours and hourly wages increased over time. Eighteen months after the benefits stopped, 20 percent had incomes above the poverty line. Families also decreased their use of non-cash assistance -- such as food stamps, Medicaid, and child care subsidies. And as of November 2002, only 15 percent had returned to TANF for the second 24-month period of benefits.
In the second major welfare program, Medicaid, low-income families can receive healthcare benefits for their children younger than 19 years old. As an example, a family of three earning less than $1,784 a month (before taxes) is eligible for Medicaid coverage for its children.
Parents can only receive Medicaid benefits generally if (1) they are in the TANF program and are working, or (2) if their income is minimal (for example, less than $309 a month for a family of three).
The third major welfare program, food stamps (which now uses debit cards rather than stamps), can be used by low-income people with or without children in the household. Two examples of low incomes eligible for food stamps are a single person making less than $1,009 a month (before taxes) or a two-person household making less than $1,354 a month (before taxes).
All persons 18-50 years old who are able to work must be working or engaged in approved volunteer or public sector work to receive food stamps. Those who don’t work are limited to receiving food stamps for three months in a 36-month period.
People generally exempt from this work requirement are those with children under 18 years old in the household, and those who are pregnant or medically unable to work.
As one who believes in helping his fellow man and woman, I think some assistance programs are important to society -- I just think they should be private, non-profit or profit sector initiatives. Government works much less efficiently and is much less accountable to the public, to competition, and to the free market than the private sector. Can you imagine any private organization that would have survived with a track record of generations of failing welfare programs before they finally decided to reform 10 years ago?
Even though giving people welfare time limits and making them work for their benefits is good reform, many of these government programs have taken over the role our families, friends, churches and community charities used to have. They were the ones who pushed us to find jobs, offered food from their gardens when times were tight, and helped take care of the kids while we were at work. Today, unfortunately, the state has assumed that role, and it doesn’t look like many of our families and churches want it back.
In my own past, I had a period of financial hardship, and reluctantly I accepted help from friends and family, or bartered my labor for things I needed. I didn’t get on welfare. I looked to people whom I had helped in the past or whom I could help in some way, and accepted their help in return. It was humbling, and even humiliating, although no one tried to make me feel bad. My own pride wouldn’t let me accept things for free, and it wouldn’t allow me to accept assistance as a permanent lifestyle (neither would my friends and family).
In the end, though, I never found a greater sense of love and commitment than I found from those who helped me. I will be grateful to those people for the rest of my life. I am also compelled to pass on to others the generosity they showed me, and many of the people I have helped and will help will do the same.
That same sense of duty to “pass it on” doesn’t often happen with recipients of government programs. Maybe that’s why our communities aren’t as strong as they once were. Maybe that’s why programs that were created decades ago to end poverty are still with us today.