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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 12, 2006

'Outstanding progress' in welfare-to-work

By Lillian Koller

River of Life Mission volunteer Ramona Williams, foreground, seeks advice on benefits as Shervelle Gardner, the organization's director of operations, lends support.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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As director of the state Department of Human Services, I appreciate The Advertiser's interest in how our former welfare recipients are faring in the job market.

That said, a Feb. 26 article ("Is welfare-to-work working?") may have given readers the false impression that public assistance programs are worsening the homelessness problem. That simply is not true.

First, welfare reform measures enacted by Congress in 1996 are having the intended effect in Hawai'i. Using money from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, Human Services is achieving great success in helping residents gain self-sufficiency, self-determination and personal dignity, as opposed to perpetuating the cycle of poverty from one generation to the next.

As any longtime welfare recipient will tell you, eking out an existence on a monthly government check is no way to live.

When evaluating temporary assistance, the best indicator for success is the number of people who voluntarily leave the welfare rolls because they find jobs. We've made outstanding progress in this regard.

In 2000, before Gov. Linda Lingle took office, only 542 individuals secured employment and moved away from public assistance. In 2005, 2,147 people joined the workforce a dramatic improvement. Moreover, the average length of time on assistance decreased from 30 months in 1997 to 15 months in 2005.

It's also important to consider the number of people who no longer qualify for temporary assistance because they reached the 60-month limit for receiving assistance. Congress set this five-year cap as part of its sweeping welfare reform legislation.

In 2002, 1,063 Hawai'i families reached the time limit. By 2005, that number dropped by more than half to 454. When people do exhaust their temporary-assistance resources, government doesn't just abandon them. Social services are still available, including Medicaid, childcare, food stamps and a $200 monthly work-expense allowance for persons employed at least 20 hours a week.

Another issue raised in the Advertiser article and a subsequent editorial ("Let's track results of welfare reform," March 5) involves assessing the effectiveness of temporary assistance by checking on the status of former welfare recipients. Some believe the state should pay for an independent study in this regard.

I'm not opposed to such a study, if the Legislature believes the expense is justified. But this probably would be reinventing the wheel, because we already have reams of data about what works and what doesn't, based on national surveys.

Furthermore, Human Services already has taken those study results and expanded our programs accordingly so temporary-assistance clients receive the extra support they need. These new initiatives launched by the Lingle-Aiona administration include:

  • SEE Hawai'i Work (Supporting Employment Empowerment), which provides a short-term subsidy to companies that hire and train people who have experienced difficulty getting jobs on their own, and reduces costs for employers by assisting with wages, administrative costs and medical insurance expenses.

  • Up Front Universal Engagement, which connects clients with the job market when they initially apply for temporary-assistance benefits.

  • Reward Work Initiative, which enables most individuals working at least 30 hours a week to continue receiving government assistance for as long as 24 months, and if they exit temporary assistance by month 25, they also can receive bonuses for two years after transitioning into the work force.

    Because Human Services has taken this proactive approach, Hawai'i is one of the few states well positioned to meet stricter federal guidelines for temporary assistance, which Congress reauthorized in February.

    It was disappointing that the Advertiser article gave a misleading picture of our state's anti-poverty efforts, and that the editorial missed the opportunity to set the record straight.

    This relates to testimony made by a welfare "expert" during a recent hearing of the House Human Services Committee. The speaker, Jack Tweedie from the National Conference of State Legislatures, presented outdated statistics about Hawai'i's family poverty rate and grossly misrepresented the job-retention record of our former temporary-assistance clients.

    Tweedie cited data from the Census Bureau indicating that poverty cases rose in Hawai'i from 2000 to 2003. However, the most recent statistics reveal that poverty is down sharply to 8.9 percent, which is just slightly higher than the rate in 2000.

    And Lingle's administration, through Human Services and other state agencies, is pursuing many initiatives to drive the poverty rate even lower by working with local organizations such as Goodwill Industries, the YWCA, the Boys and Girls Club, and the University of Hawai'i.

    Moreover, Tweedie speculated during the hearing that the job-retention rate for Hawai'i's former temporary-assistance recipients "isn't very strong." That couldn't be further from the truth. I am proud to say that our clients have the best job-retention rate in the country, according to the past two years of reported data, and this achievement has drawn praise from the federal government.

    Clearly, opportunities for job seekers are plentiful, considering Hawai'i had the lowest average unemployment rate in the nation during 2005 and among the lowest rates in 2004.

    Finally, it was disappointing that the Advertiser article and editorial missed what I believe is the most newsworthy aspect of the welfare-to-work issue that being the Legislature's decision last session to restrict $35 million in temporary-assistance money by locking it away in a reserve fund that can only be used for cash assistance.

    We already have more than enough money in reserve more than $138 million. That means we can no longer use those federal funds for programs Human Services and the Legislature agree are needed by temporary-assistance clients so they can break out of poverty and stay out of poverty. These essential services include job training, remedial and higher education, childcare and transportation.

    Furthermore, the Legislature set the maximum amount of cash assistance Human Services can give to temporary-assistance clients more than a decade ago (62.5 percent of the 1993 federal poverty level), and the cap has not been raised since. This makes it harder for needy families to make ends meet while pursuing entry-level, low-paying jobs.

    To make matters even worse, for the past three years, the Legislature has refused the Lingle-Aiona administration's requests to raise the standard deduction on state income tax and thus allow low-income families to keep more of their money. I thank the Senate president for supporting Gov. Lingle's position this year. Perhaps, as reported last week, the rest of the Legislature will have a change of heart and pass this important tax-relief measure.

    The bottom line is that Human Services is ready to finance many worthwhile efforts to ease poverty, but the Legislature has sharply curtailed our flexibility. We want to spend our allotted temporary-assistance money on those who need it most, and we can accomplish this if the financing restriction is lifted.

    I urge our residents to make their voices heard at the state Capitol so we can use these federal dollars to fight poverty in the best possible way, using carefully chosen and proven strategies.

    Lillian Koller is director of the state Department of Human Services. She wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.