Life Just Got Harder for Welfare Moms
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Stiffer work and reporting requirements for the federal welfare program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, fail to recognize mothers' needs for training, education and child care to make their families self sufficient, women's advocacy groups say.
"The new regulations are a continuation of the misguided 'work first' approach that has been the hallmark of welfare reform," says Erin Mohan, public policy director for Washington-based advocacy organization, Women Work! "This strategy forces women into low-wage, low-skilled, dead-end jobs; jobs that don't pay the bills and can't support families."
In order to qualify for TANF, an adult head of household with children must prove she has insufficient means to pay for rent, food and utilities.
Before the latest regulations announced in June, states had leeway in deciding what constituted the 30 hours of work-related activities required of recipients by welfare legislation enacted in 1996. (Twenty of those hours had to qualify as "core" and 10 as "indirect.")
Some states, for instance, allowed career training and university-degree programs to qualify as employment-related activity.
The new regulations, which took effect Oct. 1, either restrict those activities, put new time limits on them or require new levels of monitoring.
"Many of the states who defined work activities more broadly in the past were taking reasonable and responsible steps to address the substantial barriers to employment that women on welfare face," says Mohan.
New Monitoring Required
Women's advocacy groups point to lack of education, job training and access to health and child care as the most common barriers to financial independence. Domestic violence, lack of suitable living conditions and language limitations can also hinder efforts at self-sufficiency.
"These people are literally fighting for their lives, for their children's futures," says Avis Jones-DeWeever, study director at the Washington-based Institute for Women's Policy Research. "Access to higher education is absolutely critical for women who seek to escape poverty. Changes that support this have not materialized because of an over-riding assumption that welfare participants don't have what it takes to make it in college."
The 1996 law ended a federal welfare system that required the federal and state government to pay, in essence, unpaid child support on behalf of absentee parents. Instead, the new law emphasized that single parents were not entitled to this government aid, and must work outside the home to support their families.
The 1996 landmark welfare legislation shifted away from assistance programs and began requiring single heads of households to fulfill 20 hours of "core" work-related activity and 10 hours of "indirect activity."
For households headed by two people, work requirements varied from 35 to 55 hours per week, depending on how many benefits the household received. Work requirements have been in place since the Ford administration, but gradually became more intensive and peaked with the October regulations.
The decade-old law placed a premium on states moving recipients onto payrolls and off government assistance.
Core Hours Go on the Clock
Now vocational education can be counted as a core activity for up to 12 months but must be monitored on a daily basis. Previously, states were not required to monitor compliance and had leeway in determining what activities qualified.
Participating in community service programs and providing child care for another TANF recipient to participate in community service also qualify, but must be supervised by a case worker on a daily basis.
On-the-job training and job search efforts count as core activities for up to six weeks in a year as long as the efforts are supervised on a daily basis.
States must develop their own ways of tracking and monitoring, but most of this new monitoring responsibility is likely to fall on case workers.
"Non-core" activities include time spent in a high school or GED programs, education directly related to an occupation or job offer, and job skills enhancement programs as long as those efforts are monitored on a daily basis.
Under the new Department of Health and Human Services regulations postsecondary education leading to a bachelor's degree and English as a Second Language programs may no longer qualify as core work activities under the new regulations.
That means any welfare participant wanting to gain a university degree will need to do so on top of the 20 or so hours of core work activities that meet the narrower federal definition. Advocates say this will add additional transportation and child care expenses and pinch off time to spend with their families.
Some states counted job searches, readiness programs and vocational education as work experience to get around a six-week limit on job searches. Doctor-mandated, third-trimester pregnancy bed rest, domestic violence counseling, caring for ill or disabled relatives, and study time were among the activities states had leeway to include as work-related activities.
Now none of those activities can meet the weekly work-hour requirement, and states can no longer tailor work activities to meet the needs of individual families.
States Face 2007 Deadline
The new regulations require states to achieve a 90-percent work participation rate for all two-parent families receiving TANF with 50-percent participation rate for single-parent families receiving welfare by the end of 2007. About 85 percent of households receiving TANF are headed by single parents.
States had faced these same deadlines in the past, but had been able to side-step penalties by using some activities -- such as domestic violence counseling or doctor-mandated bed rest -- to meet the work requirements and reduce their overall caseloads.
Now, states must requalify under the new regulations.
States had until Oct. 1 to submit their new regulations for approval and devise and implement a way to verify recipients' compliance. Those that did not meet the deadline faced a 5 percent reduction in their annual federal block grants that help fund welfare programs.
In June the Department of Health and Human Services defended the regulations -- timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the 1996 Clinton-era welfare changes -- as "maintaining the program's overall funding and basic structure, while focusing increased efforts on building stronger families through work, job advancement and research on healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood programs."
Advocates say 85 percent of TANF recipients receive little or no child support, and turn to federal assistance when they find themselves unable to find work in a weak economy, unable to make ends meet without a safety net and in need of help to secure long-term stability.
U.S. Census data indicates that in 2005, 28.7 percent of single mothers were living in poverty up from 25.4 percent in 2000.
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Buffalo, New York who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International, and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East, and South Asia.