In the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, the Republican-led Congress closed a few loopholes in the welfare system. It also closed some great big doors, working mothers say, on their chances of ever getting out of poverty.
Last year, the Bush Administration issued strict new work rules that have pushed more people off the welfare rolls. According to a press release issued in July by Gov. Christine Gregoire, the state’s caseload dropped to less than 50,000 in June — down from more than 51,000 last September and the lowest level since 1979. The govenor’s office says the figures prove that WorkFirst, the state welfare-to-work program created after Congress passed welfare reform in 1996, “has been very successful in helping families get and keep the jobs they need to break the cycle of poverty.”
But Erin Welch, interim director of Seattle’s Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition, says the state is in no position to make that claim. Because the state doesn’t track what happens to former recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, she says, there’s no evidence that parents who give up TANF do get jobs or improve their situation.
In many cases, she adds, parents leave the program because they feel bullied or harassed by employees of the Department of Social and Health Services — something Welch says has only gotten worse under the new rules.
“We are definitely getting calls from people relaying that they are hearing from their caseworkers about their new requirements,” she says.
The rules, which DSHS implemented last September, require a greater number of the state’s TANF recipients to work or take job training 32 hours a week, regardless of whether a parent is dealing with a disability, domestic violence problem, or even illiteracy.
Time spent securing safe housing, learning English, taking basic education classes or working on a bachelor’s degree, for instance, don’t count toward the 32-hour work requirement. The only exception to the 32-hour rule is for drug or mental health treatment, which is capped at six weeks in a single year, regardless of the severity of the addiction or illness.
Between March 1 and July 1, says Carole Holland, senior WorkFirst coordinator in the state’s Office of Financial Management, 132 families lost their welfare grants for failing to meet the 32-hour work rule over a six-month period. But in many cases, Welch says, it was for things they couldn’t possibly help, such as taking their kids to the doctor.
“I just got off the phone with a woman with three children, all of whom have disabilities,” Welch says. “She is going to school 32 hours a week and has regular medical appointments for her children. The school supports her in going to her appointments with a plan for her to make up what she misses. But she’s struggling with DSHS telling her she needs to be on campus, in school, for 32 hours a week or she’s not in compliance.”
In June, the National Governors Association sent letters to members of the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways & Means Committee urging them to relax the law – in part, the governors argued, because the 32-hour work rule may violate the accommodation required under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. On June 28, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), responded by introducing S. 1730, a bill that would allow states to modify their welfare-to-work plans for the disabled.
In the meantime, those who lose their cash assistance in the State of Washington continue to get food stamps and medical assistance, Holland says. But she acknowledges that the overall drop in welfare cases is due less to parents getting off the program and more to the fact that fewer families are applying – possibly, she says, because of Washington’s strong economy and ready jobs.
In the first quarter of 2007, Holland says, 66 percent of WorkFirst’s job seekers found employment after receiving job-search services. For those who took a temporary, state-paid job through WorkFirst’s community jobs program, 68 percent later found permanent work.
But Chevaughn Stephens, a 30-year-old mother of three who has been on welfare several times, questions the earnng power of those jobs. While receiving welfare, WorkFirst paid her salary at a nonprofit where she learned case management, but she says she couldn’t get a regular job in that field because she lacks a bachelor’s degree – something that welfare recipients aren’t allowed to work toward under the new rules.
“They say, ‘No, we won’t allow you to go to school’,” says Stephens, who recently started an $8.50-an-hour dispatch job. “But we’ll allow you to get a minimum-wage job at Taco Bell.”