At least 30 families across Washington are descending deeper into poverty, thanks to a new welfare law that went into affect on March 1.
Gov. Christine Gregoire’s new law — “Full Family Sanctions” — punishes an entire family if a parent fails to meet the state’s WorkFirst requirements.
“WorkFirst will stop providing cash assistance to families who have repeatedly refused to participate in job readiness activities,” Washington WorkFirst announced in a press release on Feb. 26.
Previously, as part of WorkFirst, the state welfare program, parents were required to engage in “job readiness activities” in order to receive cash benefits. Parents who “refused” were penalized with a partial withholding of their benefits.
Under the new regulations, if parents refuse for at least six consecutive months, all cash benefits for their entire family will be terminated. WorkFirst’s website states that sanctions are to “get people in line”, “hold parents accountable for their actions” and “force them to take control of their lives”.
According to WorkFirst spokeswoman Carole Holland, Gov. Gregoire believes that “poverty is not a condition for children to live in” and that “the best way out of poverty is to have a job”.
WorkFirst participants, however, paint a different picture.
Rebecca Tilton, 21, of Vancouver is one parent who is facing Fully Family Sanctions as early as April. “I’d love to be part of the workforce,” says Tilton, “but because of my daughter, I can’t.”
Tilton’s daughter, Aubree, three and a half year-old, has been diagnosed with a form of autism. “According to the Social Security Administration, she’s a disabled child,” says Tilton. “She goes to a special needs school, has an IEP” — Individualized Educational Program — “and attends therapy three times a week. But every time the DSHS worker looks at her, she says she doesn’t have a disability and I’m just over-playing it.”
Tilton has been battling with WorkFirst for more than two years. She contends that her daughter’s disability prevents her from getting work. According to Tilton, DSHS says that’s no excuse and has threatened her with the new sanctions.
Holland, the WorkFirst spokeswoman, also says that parents who are unable to look for work are exempt from the sanctions, if they have health restrictions or other dire situations.
“I’ve given the DSHS worker a letter from her psychiatrist saying I need to stay home because my daughter has anxiety problems,” says Tilton. “The worker looked at the letter and said, ‘I’ll give it to my supervisor, but I know it’s not going to help you.’”
Jean Colman of the Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition finds the law to heavily problematic. “Full-family sanctions hurt families,” says Colman.
WROC reports accounts of DSHS workers yelling at families and hanging up the phone. The group also reports that the system doesn’t account for people with serious illnesses or other compelling reasons that would explain an extended lapse in participation job hunting activities— situations such as Rebecca Tilton’s, whose daughter’s numerous appointments with psychiatrists and therapists often conflict with meetings with the mother’s DSHS worker.
Furthermore, though only 30 families were affected on March 1, identifying those families or others who are facing sanctions is problematic on its own. The state, says Colman, refuses to release information to welfare organizations for reasons of privacy and confidentiality.
As a result, advocacy groups don’t know what sort of situations people are in or what kind of assistance they’ve sought from the state, leaving the groups unable to help them maintain their benefits. The state of Washington claims that up to 1,200 families could face sanctions in the near future, says a state spokesperson.
Holland says that she is unaware of any reports of disrespectful behavior towards clients by DSHS workers, and that welfare organizations should report abuse to DSHS and work with them to improve the system.
According to its website, the state contends that “work is the best force to break the cycle of poverty” and that “the welfare caseload of WorkFirst in Washington is the lowest its been since 1982.”
However, the same cannot be said about poverty levels in Washington in that same time period. In 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that poverty had increased in the state among school-age children.
By CHRIS LaROCHE, Contributing Writer
For copy of actual issue, go to https://www.realchangenews.org/2007/03/14/mar-14-2007-entire-issue