Is welfare-to-work working?
By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Government Writer
By Treena Shapiro
The state has reduced its average monthly caseload of welfare families by roughly 58 percent since 1996 when Congress set stricter eligibility guidelines and a five-year cap on cash benefits.
What happened to the almost 12,000 families who left the system is unknown because the state has no way of tracking them.
Currently, "We have no tracking methods at all," Department of Human Services Director Lillian Koller told legislators at a recent state House Human Services committee hearing. But she said DHS is working to correct that.
While the state considers declining caseloads an indicator of success, social service advocates and the poor themselves suggest that pushing people off public assistance — or making it harder for them to get on — is not helping to reduce the number of needy families and could actually be contributing to the number of people living on the streets.
"I know that we see more people now," said Shervelle Gardner, operations director for the River of Life Mission, which offers services to the homeless and indigent. "There's a lot more people out in the parks. The other day they had more camping out at Ala Moana, more camping out at Thomas Square."
Tracking families that leave the system is critical to gauging the effectiveness of welfare-to-work, family strengthening and prevention programs funded with federal Temporary Aid for Needy Families — or cash welfare assistance and other welfare programs — according to Jack Tweedie, a national expert on welfare issues.
"You still have limited knowledge of how it is working," Tweedie, director of the child and family programs for the National Council of State Legislatures, told lawmakers and Koller at the House hearing.
However, the federal government does not require a tracking system and only 33 states had them as of 2002, according to a report prepared by Tweedie.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Human Services recently praised Hawai'i for its success with the welfare program.
The hearing was called by frustrated lawmakers who have expressed concern that they haven't been given information by DHS on what the estimated $100 million annually in federal welfare money is being used for and how effective its programs have been.
Over the past decade, the way the state spends its federal welfare funds has shifted from an emphasis on cash assistance to an emphasis on poverty-prevention programs. In 1998, 73 percent of welfare funds were used for cash assistance. Last year, only 27 percent of almost $100 million in federal funds was used to give cash assistance.
The state's efforts fall in line with federal welfare guidelines, which call for backing cash assistance with initiatives aimed at lifting families out of poverty through work training and jobs, as well as programs designed to strengthen families and help at-risk children break the cycle of poverty.
However, the state has no way to assess whether its initiatives have been successful, or even easily determine which former recipients still qualify for food stamps, Quest health insurance or other programs it offers to low-income residents.
Once recipients leave the rolls, the state cannot track them unless they come back and reapply for assistance, Koller said.
However, the state recently created a program that will provide bonuses to those who maintain steady employment after leaving the welfare program and will also allow DHS to better assess how its former recipients are doing. "They're going to stay connected to us for two years," she said.
Tweedie suggested going a step further by commissioning an independent study that will look at how many former welfare recipients get jobs, stay employed for extended periods, see increases in their wages and rise out of poverty altogether. "You have to focus on accountability, achievements and outcomes," he said.
The state might be unpleasantly surprised by what it finds. When Arkansas looked at what had become of its former recipients, it discovered only 12 percent had moved out of poverty and "the poverty level is just a minimum standard," Tweedie said.
"My guess is that in Hawai'i your job retention rate isn't very strong," Tweedie warned.
Tweedie said childcare, transportation and medical problems contribute to former recipients leaving their employment. Another problem is that often the jobs offered through welfare-to-work programs are entry-level positions with no ladder up to a higher pay scale.
Anecdotal evidence paints a murky picture of what is happening with former welfare families, but much of it indicates that declining welfare rolls are not matched by a reduction in the number of needy families.
For instance, according to state figures, the number of families receiving cash assistance dropped by 4,800 from 2000 to 2003, but the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the number of Hawai'i families living in poverty increased by 2,500 during that same period.
On the other hand, two organizations that offer referrals and assistance to front-line agencies provided some indication that fewer families are looking for help.
The number of people calling Aloha United Way's 211 line for referrals to agencies that provide financial assistance, food and shelter has declined.
Similarly, Dick Grimm at the Hawai'i Foodbank said the agencies they help are reporting that "they're seeing probably a little bit fewer families coming in to the food pantries now because of the five-year cap on welfare because they are forced to go out and get jobs."
However, those who work directly with needy clientele say the number of those seeking services is increasing.
No one pinpointed welfare reform as the single reason for a rise in the number of families needing help finding food and shelter, but many suspect it is a contributing factor, along with rising housing costs and drug use.
'LONG LINES FOR FOOD'
Over the past five years, for example, Aloha Harvest has more than doubled the amount of food it delivers to agencies that feed the poor. "We could have a full truck every single day and not have enough food to give to everyone," said the nonprofit's executive director, Chris Chun.
Phyllis Waterhouse, director of the Waianae Coast Christian Women's Job Corps, said she recently had to turn away women who wanted to be part of the program aimed at helping women become independent and self-sufficient.
In addition, she said, "We still have long lines for food."
Mary Oneha, director of Case Management/Utilization for the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center, said she thinks the five-year cap on welfare is one of the reasons that homelessness is on the rise.
"I think that it is certainly one of the contributing factors to the numbers of people we are seeing that need more extensive help in not only sort of getting back on their feet and getting the resources they need, but being able to sustain the resources they need," she said.
The poor themselves say it is difficult to get on welfare, and difficult to stay on, and some say they can't even get to the five-year limit because of the paperwork and work requirements.
Ramona Williams, 43, a volunteer at the River of Life Mission, talked about how hard it is to fulfill all the requirements, which include a job-training class, 16 job applications and 20 hours of volunteer work a week, all for $229 in food stamps a month. "I can't get cash," she said. "I'm able-bodied and there's no medical problem with me."
With no phone or address, she has to go to the Waikiki Health Center's Care-A-Van daily to see if she has any messages related to employment.
But Williams wants to be one of the state's success stories and said all the trouble is worth it if she can eventually have an income and a home again.
"I hate it, I really hate it," she said. "I want to be sure I'm out of this situation that I'm in. This is not a good way of life."
Reach Treena Shapiro at firstname.lastname@example.org.