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Welfare Law Not Fulfilling Potential for Change, Study Says

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The landmark federal welfare law enacted in 1988 has not fulfilled its potential to fundamentally redefine the mission of the welfare system, but it is prompting states to place more emphasis on meeting the educational needs of welfare clients, a study concludes.

The 10-state study, led by researchers at the Nelson A. Rockeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York at Albany and released at a Congressional hearing last week, is said to be the most comprehensive examination of the program's implementation across several states.

A critical goal of the Family Support Act's Job Opportunities and Basic Skills (JOBS) program, the report points out, was to shift the focus of state welfare systems to move aid recipients toward self-sufficiency and to stress the "mutual obligation'' of government and the poor.

The law marked a new consensus on welfare reform between liberals and conservatives and was hailed as "the most sweeping revision in the nation's welfare system in 50 years,'' notes the study, which was funded through a combination of federal, state, and foundation support.

While states are following the "letter of the law'' and taking incremental steps in the right direction, it concludes, for the most part they have not seized the opportunity "to signal a change in the mission of welfare systems or to redefine the social contract.''

The researchers found that implementating the law required less adjustment and extended services to more people in the states they studied that already had welfare-to-work programs before the law was passed. Those states are Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania.

The states studied that had not made major investments in such programs prior to the law--Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas--are making a "good faith effort'' to implement it, the study found, but they have had to scramble to meet federal participation rates with available resources.

Money Shortage Cited

While noting that the law has not spurred state leaders to revisit their welfare positions or policies in ways advocates had hoped, the study attributes states' difficulties in fulfilling the law's promise in large part to economic factors. On average, states in the study were able to contribute enough state dollars to draw down only 48 percent of the federal funds available for JOBS programs in 1991.

Jan L. Hagen, an associate professor of social welfare at SUNY-Albany and a co-author of the report, said the recession has diminished state revenues while increasing welfare rolls, leaving states with the task of "implementing a major new initiative without a lot of new funds.''

"The problem now is that most recipients cannot get the necessary training because the states are out of money,'' said Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the chairman of the panel that held the hearing at which the report was released. The New York Democrat, one of the welfare law's earliest backers, has introduced a bill that would fully fund êïâó at a cost of $4.5 billion a year.

Education's Role Expands

Despite fiscal obstacles, the study shows, states are shifting their emphasis from job-search and work-experience programs to higher-cost services designed to bolster recipients' self-sufficiency in the long run.

"One of our more significant findings is the fact that states are putting increasing emphasis on educational services for welfare recipients,'' said Ms. Hagen. That held true, she added, even among those that already had well-developed welfare-to-work programs prior to the 1988 federal law.

As a result of the law, the report notes, states project "at least moderate increases'' in the number of participants receiving educational services and in expenditures for these services under the JOBS program.

The report also suggests that the law is spurring states to establish linkages between state welfare and education agencies. It notes that four states studied have developed mechanisms to help coordinate welfare and education services at the local level.

While such links "are just beginning in most states, the legislation has provided an incentive for these interagency relationships to develop and expand in most states,'' the report concludes.

Role of Child Care

One challenge to the education component, the report says, has been a federal regulation requiring that participants be scheduled for JOBS activities for an average of 20 hours a week. While the rule helps encourage states and participants to become involved in significant job-training, education, and employment activities, the report says, it may pose roadblocks to enrollment in full-time college programs, which are typically only 12 to 15 hours.

Scheduling extra hours of supervised study overburdens programs without necessarily adding "meaningful'' activities, the report says.

It says increased child-care aid made available through JOBS has made an important contribution, and it notes that most states in the study do not expect a lack of child-care services or funding to hinder them from serving requisite numbers of clients. But Minnesota, it points out, moved to restrict access to JOBS because of a lack of sufficient child-care funds, and Tennessee and Texas could face the same situation.

While assessments of JOBS clients' needs offer a chance to "identify and consider any special needs of children,'' the report also notes, only a few states have tapped the potential for a "two generational'' approach.

Copies of a summary of the report, "Implementing JOBS: Initial State Choices,'' are available free of charge from the JOBS Implementation Study, School of Social Welfare, University at Albany, State University of New York, 135 Western Ave., Albany, N.Y. 12222.

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