Welfare to work, it’s not as easy as it sounds

Published 8:49 am Wednesday, February 28, 2018

In 1996 President Bill Clinton signed a law that reformed the nation’s welfare system. Following reform, the number of people on the welfare rolls declined by half in just four years, from 12.6 million to 6.3 million in 2000.
Welfare reformists believed that when able-bodied parents were required to work and develop skills, their children would learn by example and become productive, self-sustaining workers as adults.
Beginning this month in Tennessee, work requirements for 58,000 able-bodied adults without dependents on SNAP were reinstated Feb. 1. They were waived nearly 10 years during the economic recession.
Those with dependents on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program, remain exempt from the work requirements.
About a million Tennesseans are on SNAP. The vast majority are families, seniors, the disabled and low-paid workers who rely on the family as a support. Those people would not be affected.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said the changes came about because Tennessee has record low unemployment and job growth. The governor has also proposed further changes to the state’s welfare programs during this legislative session that encourage self-sufficiency with more incentives to work.
“This is the way the law is designed to work,” Haslam said. “The law was passed in 1996 and said if you’re an able-bodied adult without dependents, you’re supposed to be working, looking for work or getting an education.”
Yet another Haslam proposal: Provide transitional funding for welfare families whose bread winners’ jobs or raises put them beyond the reach of assistance such as child care before they’re able to stand on their own.
It’s easy to say that those people on welfare should after a time be able to find a job and go to work. Most of the families who receive state assistance are not “deadbeats” and are not lazy. They are most commonly headed by a single white woman between 20 and 29 years old with a high school equivalent education and two children under the age of 6.
Of course, cutting off government assistance doesn’t miraculously lift people out of poverty. It just means poor families have even less money. Many of the poorest Americans — including those few remaining who receive cash welfare — are already working. The problem is they do not earn enough money to provide for their families.
Welfare reform’s time-limited, work-based concept, in short, has been broadly vindicated and enjoys wide bipartisan support. The block-grant funding mechanism, however, is in need of change. Intended to encourage localized experimentation, the system has over time been gamed by many states, which have figured out how to use the money for programs well outside the law’s “core purposes” of helping the poor get work and providing cash assistance until they do.
Welfare reform has served the poor, and the country as a whole, better than its many critics predicted, but not as well as it might. In other words, after 20 years, welfare reform needs reform.
However, more than work is needed for these mothers on welfare to succeed. If they go to low-paying jobs, they are still going to need help. Some provisions must be made for education, vocational training, and in some cases, addiction treatment or long-term services, increased support for child care, and to help parents who hold low-wage jobs with unpredictable schedules.
It’s easy to say, “Go to work or lose your benefits.” But, the success of welfare reform depends on getting real jobs for these families and giving them the tools to take personal responsibility for their families.

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