The Clock is Ticking for American Families

Caitlin Johnson
September 27, 1999

Sept. 1999

When welfare reform passed in 1996, Michelle Alexander got a call from a woman in legal services telling her she'd probably have to drop out of school. "I was trying to go to class, go to work, pay rent and be a good mom," says Alexander, who was then a sophomore at the University of Maine, the mother of a 3-year-old daughter, and surviving on state assistance. The new welfare time limits and work requirements meant that parents like Michelle could be forced out of career training and college and into minimum-wage jobs.

Maine legal services, client groups and the state legislature launched an innovative program to ensure that didn't happen. But many other states have not been as creative, nor have their families and children been so lucky. As recipients begin to "time out," or reach state time limits on welfare assistance, advocates and participants alike are wondering whether states are doing enough to make sure people have the skills to find not just a job, but work that will help them pull their families up and out of poverty.

What We Know Now
When President Clinton signed the bill to "end welfare as we know it," he promised to make welfare assistance a "way out" and not "a way of life" for the more than 9 million children and 5 million adults in the system. If states took charge of their own welfare systems, proponents of reform argued, they could better serve participants. The rules were clear: states would report the number of people receiving welfare and the number who left. As long as caseloads decreased, states could design their own programs and decide how best to spend their annual Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grants.

And caseloads have dropped. But according to the Center for Law and Social Policy, most families who have left TANF—even those who left voluntarily for full-time work—are not earning enough to rise above the poverty line. Job retention and advancement are proving serious problems for families leaving welfare.

Critics of reform argue that the new "work first" focus assumes that those in the system aren't working because they lack motivation, and that all they need is an incentive to get a job. But according to states studies of women on welfare this simply isn't the case. Many are working, but remain in poverty—often, research finds, because they are in traditionally female-dominated sectors that don't pay a living wage, and because they do not have the skills or support to move into more a stable employment track.

And not all work is sustainable work. Some states are still stuck in the rigid work-first philosophy at any cost, which can lead to low-paying make-work jobs. "Sorting coat hangers is a real thing that people have to do. But education doesn't count in Wisconsin," says Bob Jacobson of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. Says Michelle Alexander, "There's a push to get people working right away—some folks may feel pressured to take whatever comes along, so they don't have time to explore or talk with their caseworkers."

Depression and low self-esteem are often powerful and largely overlooked barriers to stability on the job. "For some low-income women, you force them into a job, 'any job, we don't care,' and they may be able to do it," says Alexander—but they may not. "I don't think it has to do as much with laziness or bad attitude, as it does extremely low self-esteem and sense of belonging. The shame really affected my sense of who I was, and my purpose and relation to the world."

For many, the transition from welfare to work is compounded by significant or multiple barriers, ranging anywhere from lack of education, little or no work experience, learning disabilities and language barriers to domestic abuse or physical or mental illness in the family.

"The people who are facing time limits generally need more intensive preparation before entering the workforce ? of course, a lot of people may not necessarily be unable to get a job because they have a barrier of their own, but because they have a disabled child to care for or a less direct reason," says Jacobson. In Wisconsin alone, 32 families have hit their limits this September. Of these, 10 have applied for and been granted a six-month extension, 5 have moved into another work category, and 5 have found jobs. The remaining 12 families have either moved, dropped out of Wisconsin Works, the state's welfare program, or have been cut off. And that's all we know.

While data has been paltry, recent studies in Connecticut and Massachusetts find that families who have timed out experience little or no increase in employment rates, but a marked increase in hardship. Massachusetts, like Wisconsin, imposes a strict 24-month limit on cash assistance in any five-year period. As of May 1999, at least 8,400 children lived in families that had timed out—more than half have working parents who were earning so little that they qualified for welfare before they hit their time limit.

According to advocates, we have no systematic way of knowing how children have been impacted, and whether they get the supports they need when their families leave or are forced off TANF. Families who have timed out may not know they are eligible for continuing supports like Medicaid or food stamps, benefits that can mean life or death for children and their parents. Caseworkers argue that many, especially immigrants, may be reluctant to come forward for help, fearing that to do so would bring recrimination or compromise their status. And many low-wage earning parents are not taking advantage of the federal Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provides health care to kids in low-income families earning more than the cap for Medicaid.

So what are states doing to help families who need it?

Putting Welfare to Work
Under reform, Congress has given states some flexibility to tailor their own programs and provide the basic—and some not-so-basic—services that every family needs, like housing, transportation, child care, nutrition, and economic and employment supports. The final rules, which go into effect on October 1, 1999, make it clear that certain programs like child care and transportation subsidies to working families are not subject to federal time limits and other restrictions.

Some states have made great use of this new flexibility to help low-income families. Michigan, Maryland and Oklahoma, to name just a few, have launched transportation programs ranging from extended bus and rail service to carpools, guaranteed rides, and even taxi service to help families find reliable transportation to jobs and child care. Other states have increased their earned income limits, to allow families to receive assistance even when working, or created job support and counseling services to help people resolve workplace issues they may not have faced before. Missouri developed a Transitional Work Allowance, that uses a creative mix of state and federal funding to provide cash supplements to families who move from welfare to work.

Many states have used TANF money to support children directly. Illinois recently announced that it was using $200 million from TANF to support child care initiatives. Wisconsin is using a portion of its grant for an Early Childhood Excellence Initiative, which will create centers around the state to help connect parents and child care providers with information, resources, and each other. And parents in Maine qualify for subsidized child care even after they've left TANF. According to Mary Henderson of the Maine Equal Justice Project, "This means that parents can get child care of their own choice, and there is no waiting list and no cap for subsidies."

Education has long been thought critical to self-sufficiency and upward mobility for all people living in the United States. Although reform made it more difficult for welfare participants to get an education, states like Maine, California and Wyoming have developed innovative ways to work around the new rules to help families leave welfare better off than they were before.

Maine's Parents as Scholars program—the same program that enabled Michelle Alexander to stay in school and earn her Bachelor's degree—makes it possible for parents, mostly moms, to get post-secondary education while receiving public assistance. But it doesn't pay tuition. Instead, it uses state funds to cover supports like mileage reimbursement, car repair, books and supplies, and eyeglasses—and give parents pursuing degrees all the supports they are entitled to under TANF without the time limits or 35-hour-a-week work requirements. Says Alexander, who helped lobby for the passage of the program while receiving welfare herself, "If not for Parents as Scholars, the new rules would have put me back at $5 an hour and having to pay back loans. It would have been a shame, a loss—a deeply personal loss for my family, and, ultimately, for the economy."

"We're losing the industry and blue-collar jobs where people can go in and make $12 starting out, so education is the key and will continue to be the key to get any kind of job with a livable wage," says Alexander.

Still, some states are clearly not doing enough. Many have been slow to act, leading to a troubling disparity in support systems across the country. "The kind of education and support programs that lead to jobs that pay a living wage and offer a reasonable opportunity for advancement out of poverty are hard to come by [in more than half of all states]. It takes a definite backseat to employment," says Bob Jacobson.

Successful support also depends on caseworkers knowing complex rules, having adequate training, and some incentive to let people know everything they're eligible for. And they are often dangerously overloaded. "I didn't want to beg and grovel and explain what I knew I should get," says Michelle Alexander. "You feel awful, so you don't always say, 'I need new glasses, I can't see a thing.' And if you don't have a caseworker who's concerned that you get everything available to you, you probably won't."

As states across the country begin to evaluate and redefine their programs, many are asking a critical question: what do low-income families need to get and keep a living-wage job, and what kinds of programs can help?

And the time to act is now. It is estimated that as of October 1, 1999, up to $9 billion of TANF money has gone unspent nationally. Only 7 states, Maine included, have spent or committed all of their annual funds. States face a risk that future funds may be deemed "unnecessary" by a money-hungry Congress and not re-appropriated when they are up for reauthorization in 2001. In fact, TANF money may be in more immediate danger—Congress has announced plans to "borrow" $3 billion of states' unspent funds to work around tight budget caps. The states have been told they'd get the money back by 2001.

There is still much to be done to ensure that time in the system is time well spent. And what happens in the next few months may be critical to making sure those leaving welfare aren't simply headed back into poverty.

What You Can Do
To learn more about what your state is doing with its TANF block grant, visit the Welfare Information Network. They have a link to Web sites of organizations working in each state.

You can also visit the National Association of Child Advocates Web site and link to your local NACA affiliate, who covers welfare reform and its impact on kids and families in your state.

Other excellent resources include:

  • Check out the Center for Law and Social Policy site for more information on welfare policy and in-depth analyses of federal and state initiatives and options.

  • The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tracks policy and programs affecting low- and moderate-income people.

  • HandsNet has a special welfare watch section online.


  • The U.S. Department of Human Services has an online guide,"Helping Families Achieve Self-sufficiency" that includes tips on how states can make the most of TANF funds.

For more information on CHIP, visit Insure Kids Now.

For transportation information, visit the Community Transportation Association of America Web site. CTAA has a transit hotline that can provide information and arrange service for anyone who calls. The number is 1-800-527-8279. CTAA receives funding from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Transit Authority.


Caitlin Johnson is staff writer at Connect for Kids.