Published Online: January 29, 1997

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Welfare Reform and the Schools

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It's not just a social service issue.

Will it throw more than a million people into poverty, or will it increase family self-sufficiency? Whatever position you hold on welfare reform, one thing is clear: It will have profound, if indirect, effects on public education. Some of the major changes and their likely impact on families and children are highlighted below, along with legislative provisions that potentially offer schools a role in welfare reform.

First, let us recap what happened as a result of the federal welfare law signed by President Clinton last year. Some 5 million families who received Aid for Families with Dependent Children cash payments are to be converted to a new system called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF. This means that parents will be expected to work within two years after assistance begins (or earlier in some cases), that they will lose all assistance after five years, and that there will no longer be a federal entitlement to assistance. States will have a great deal more authority over the program. For example, they may impose more stringent requirements than outlined above and set financial-assistance levels without federal approval. Federal officials are largely forbidden to interfere with how states run their programs.

Whether or not the numbers of children and families in poverty will change depends on several factors: how states elect to use their authority, future changes in the economy, and behavioral changes on the part of clients. Proponents of welfare reform focus on the social benefits that will accrue over time, particularly for children who reside in multi-generational welfare families. They see a working parent (as contrasted with a stay-at-home parent receiving public assistance) to be a better role model. Furthermore, they suggest that the elimination of an entitlement to cash assistance may result in more responsible behavior (marriage, later childbearing, and graduation from high school). Finally, they believe that the working family will be financially better off than the welfare family.

Opponents, on the other hand, fear that reforms will remove what little safety net currently exists for poor children. A lack of jobs in many locations and the fact that many welfare recipients are ill-prepared to obtain and retain jobs, combined with time limits for welfare eligibility, could result in thousands of families leaving the welfare rolls over time with no other source of income. In either case, outcomes are likely to vary significantly by state. Educators could provide a useful service by noting whether there appear to be effects on children in their community and letting responsible state officials know so that they can modify programs as needed.

The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program will have a significant impact on preschool and school-age children because many more women will be employed at least 20 hours a week initially, with that figure rising to 35 hours in future years. Most of these mothers will be eligible for child care while they receive assistance and for at least a year after their assistance ends. The state will decide whether to offer school-age, in addition to preschool, child care. A mother with a child under 12 months old is not required to work, nor is a mother with a child under age 6 if child care is unavailable.

Parenthetically, a state must designate a governmental or private organization to be the lead agency in administering most types of federal child-care funds. Child-care funds will increase substantially over the next few years. State education agencies and local schools could play critical roles in expanding child care.

Other changes will result in lower annual increases in food stamp benefits and the funding of school lunches and breakfasts. Many children who currently receive benefits under the Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, program may be dropped because the category of "functional disabled" has been eliminated. This will particularly affect children labeled as having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Depending upon the state policies and family income, children no longer eligible for SSI funds may also lose their eligibility for Medicaid services.

The authors of the legislation clearly believe that the emphasis should be work first, supplemented as necessary by later education.

Increasingly, schools are looking to Medicaid to reimburse some health-services costs, particularly for children with special needs. Previously, all welfare recipients received Medicaid. Now, new welfare-program recipients are eligible for Medicaid, but their eligibility is not automatic, that is, their applications need to be reviewed separately for Medicaid. It should be noted that the welfare-reform legislation does not limit Medicaid eligibility in the same manner it does welfare eligibility. Individuals are eligible if they meet requirements set forth in the state's Medicaid plan as it existed on July 16, 1996. Schools can continue to use Medicaid to the extent possible to pay for school-based health and other related services of eligible children.

Crucial to the success of welfare reform is the extent to which it will help families enter into and retain employment. The states have a number of tools that, if states choose, can be used to help this happen, including providing training and education, subsidizing private and public employment, and allowing working recipients to save money through an individual development account designed for savings that go toward higher education, the purchase of a home, and business capitalization.

While the new welfare law recognizes that employment opportunities for people with minimal education, training, and work skills are limited, the authors of the legislation clearly believe that the emphasis should be work first, supplemented as necessary by later education. Welfare recipients can meet work requirements by participating in educational activities (although states cannot count some of these placements toward meeting stringent federal employment quotas and may be penalized if these education placements are not offset by a sufficient number of work placements).

Specifically, teenage heads of household may attend secondary school or its equivalent or participate in education directly related to employment. Furthermore, individuals may meet requirements by participating in vocational education for up to a year, in job-skills training, or (in the case of those who lack a diploma or a General Educational Development credential) in education directly related to employment. College and other types of education not directly related to employment do not meet federal requirements.

If the state welfare agency wishes, it can fund local education agencies to help young welfare recipients make successful transitions to work. Schools with good vocational education and school-to-work programs could use TANF funds for programs that provide welfare recipients with needed education and training not available to the general public.

Welfare reform allows states to require individuals between the ages of 20 and 51 who have the capacity to do so to work toward attaining a high school diploma or its equivalent. It also allows states to sanction families that do not see that their minor children attend school. This could also increase the demand for adult education and raise public school enrollments.

To create disincentives to early parenthood, the legislation puts an emphasis on obtaining child support from absent fathers. It requires teenage recipients to live at home or under adult supervision and authorizes a state to require school attendance. It requires that a teenage mother under the age of 18 who is not married and has not completed high school participate in activities directed toward a high school diploma or an alternative education or training program.

Children in families that lose benefits may exhibit more physical, social, and emotional problems that interfere with their learning.

Finally, welfare reform presents incentives to states and localities to reduce teen pregnancy and recognizes the crucial role of education in achieving this reduction. States will be given funds for abstinence education and (at the state's option) where appropriate, mentoring, counseling, and adult supervision to promote abstinence. School health programs could play an important role in reducing teen pregnancy and could receive state welfare funds to do so.

Those most negatively affected by welfare reform are immigrants. In general, aliens who legally enter the United States will no longer be eligible for welfare, Medicaid, and most other assistance during the five years following their arrival. Those who have legally entered in the past may lose their benefits this year.

Schools need to be aware of these changes. Children in families that lose benefits may exhibit more physical, social, and emotional problems that interfere with their learning, and this may also result in disruptive behavior that interferes with the learning of others. Schools need to identify children in need of services and extra support and join with other agencies to assure that they receive it.

It is crucial that state and local education agencies learn about welfare-reform provisions so that they can become actively involved in formulating or responding to state and local policies and programs at the earliest possible date. If they act quickly, schools could receive welfare funds to support school efforts to increase welfare recipients' employability, help young welfare recipients succeed in school, provide child care to welfare recipients and other working poor, and reduce teen pregnancy.

Additional information on this subject is available in the Center on Effective Services for Children publication The ABCs of Welfare Reform ($18.50 plus $4 for shipping and handling). The address for the center is P.O. Box 27412, Washington, D.C. 20038-7412; (202) 785-9524.


Candace J. Sullivan is the associate director of the Center on Effective Services for Children, based in Washington.

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