Stateline Story

States Defy Critics By Changing Welfare Culture Faster Than Expected

WASHINGTON -- Three years after the states officially took the reins of the nation's welfare system, their social service agencies have adopted policies that observers say have resulted in profound change, particularly in the message sent to welfare recipients.

Previous attempts by Congress to mandate work for adults on welfare met with only limited success, but this time many states are thoroughly and effectively communicating two new rules to their residents: your time on welfare is limited and you must look for a job.

"This time the message is getting through," said Richard Nathan of the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, New York. "The signaling effect of the act is surprisingly strong and persuasive. It has penetrated the social welfare bureaucracy in surprising ways."

Much remains to be done for states to meet all the requirements of the 1996 federal welfare law; needed computer systems are not in place and recipients and caseworkers alike are often confused by the complex new rules. But analysts agree the degree of shift so far in these large government bureaucracies, which in the past have proven so resistant to change , is noteworthy.

The findings are published in two reports from separate research groups, the Rockefeller Institute and the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, MDRC, both based in New York State.

In its report released today, MRDC looked at four cities, each of which handles at least 20 percent of its state's welfare caseload: Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami and Philadelphia.

"It's clear that the success of welfare reform depends on what happens in America's major urban centers," said Gordon Berlin of MDRC. "They typically started off with many factors against them, including concentrated poverty, labor market conditions, and in most cases inexperience in making big changes in their welfare systems."

The unemployment rates in these cities are higher than their state average, but welfare workers are successfully conveying to recipients the importance of work, the report says. Each city requires recipients to look for a job, either on their own or as part of a 'job club.' For those who fail in their job search, each city offers additional education and training.

Rockefeller researchers found similar results in its visits to 40 offices in 20 states. About 75 percent of the sites employed practices that emphasize work while stressing self-sufficiency.

Nearly all the offices Rockefeller researchers visited had called recipients to meetings to explain the new rules. Half the sites demanded recipients immediately look for a job and some even required applicants begin a job search before they could receive benefits.

States are "using the labor market as a sorting mechanism to identify which cases are problematic and which are not," the Rockefeller report says.

At a recent press briefing on Capitol Hill, the Republican chairperson of the House human resources subcommittee, Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, touted the Rockefeller report's findings.

Johnson believes the 'work-first' philosophy has permeated the welfare bureaucracy more thoroughly than in any previous attempts at reform and has led to a remarkable increase in the percentage of single mothers who work.

"There has been a deep change in the operation of welfare offices. The change is profound. The change is exciting." Johnson said. "Local welfare programs have changed from check-writing programs to employment-support programs."

Critics charge that too much remains unknown and undone to declare victory.

Nathan, one of the principal authors of the Rockefeller study, concedes as much. "There is a lot of administrative and organizational change that is ahead of these agencies. When you turn around a big battleship, it takes time," he said.

Nathan points to the development and installation of new computer systems as the biggest hurdle states have yet to jump. "If there is any major weakness in the implementation of the new welfare, data systems are it," the Rockefeller report says.

To comply with the new laws, states will need to amass information about recipients' marital status, work history, citizenship and time on welfare data they did not collect under the old welfare system.

Many states cannot use their records to find out which recipients are approaching their time limits, the Rockefeller reports says, making it difficult for them to reach out to these people before their benefits expire.

The MDRC study paints a less sanguine portrait of reform's progress in the big-city welfare offices.

Although recipients in the cities MDRC examined generally understood they had a limited time on welfare and that they had to look for a job, they were confused about many of the welfare laws' other provisions.

They did not understand the tradeoffs between welfare and work that if they supplement their paychecks with welfare, their lifetime clock still ticks regardless of the size of the benefit they collect.

Many recipients did not know they could still receive Medicaid, food stamps and child care subsidies after they left the rolls.

The cities had not yet made new services available for the recipients who, because of domestic violence, drug addiction or criminal records, will have the most trouble finding a job. Nor had they yet started job-training or skills programs to help recipients keep jobs or move on to better ones.

Both studies found that welfare workers paid little if any attention to other chief goals of the 1996 federal welfare law decreasing illegitimate and teen births. Across the board, welfare caseworkers are not talking to recipients about abstinence and contraception.

One New York City official told Rockefeller's researcher, "Ninety percent of our workers are themselves single parents and identify on that point with their clients."

MDRC reports that Los Angeles lags behind the other three cities in informing all of its 294,502 recipients about the new rules.

California was one of the last states to enact a new welfare program and its caseload dwarfs that of every other state. The success or failure of welfare reform there will likely color any final assessment of progress for the nation as a whole.