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By Charlotte Snow

Welfare as we knew it ended on August 22, 1996, when President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, ending the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program and its guarantee of federal cash assistance for poor families.

As the effects of the new law begin to be felt, University of Chicago researchers from several disciplines are unearthing more comprehensive data on its practical implications: visiting local welfare agencies, creating databases, interviewing working mothers, tracking down fathers, and asking tough questions about poverty and inequality.

It’s too early to know for certain whether or not the poor have benefited from the 1996 law, say the researchers, especially when, given the tight labor market and strong economy, the new system has yet to be truly tested. But their initial findings suggest that true welfare reform may only be just beginning—that the only thing constant about the nation’s welfare policy may, in fact, be change.

“Welfare policies have been evolving for 200 years,” notes Susan Mayer, an associate professor in the Harris School and director of the Northwestern University/University of Chicago Joint Center for Poverty Research. “It’s a pendulum that swings back and forth. Welfare reform may help a third or half of the people who were on AFDC. Another two-thirds or half might need different programs. The policies will evolve. We are always reforming welfare.”

The latest reforms require state governments to cut their welfare rolls in half by 2002, but they do not tell them how to do it. AFDC’s replacement—the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program—gives state governments broad discretion in how they use lump sums of federal money, or block grants, to pay for and administer welfare benefits. Each state is free to design its own TANF–management program with its own incentives. For the first time, those incentives may include cutting off benefits to adults who are not working at least 30 hours per week after two years in the program, who use up a five-year lifetime limit on benefits, or who do not establish the paternity of their children and follow child-support orders. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees the federal block-grant program, considers welfare recipients to be participating in a “work activity” and thus meeting the weekly work requirement if they are actively looking for a job, enrolled in a job-training program, working in an unsubsidized or subsidized job, performing community service, or providing child care to community-service participants. States had until July 1, 1997, to begin implementing their TANF plans, with many starting earlier.

Backers of the new approach hail statistics showing reductions in the welfare rolls as proof that the stricter rules are moving people off the dole and into jobs. Nationally, just under 8 million people remained on welfare at the end of September 1998, down 44 percent from 14.3 million in 1994, according to HHS. By September 1997, all states, except for those starting their programs after April 1997, had to have moved at least 25 percent of their adult recipients into work activities or face financial penalties. According to HHS figures released in December 1998, data collected from 36 states during those months show that, on average, 28 percent of each state’s adult welfare recipients had found a job or were preparing to work.

Critics of the reforms argue that the numbers reflect many recipients who have left the system not for jobs but because the states used the new flexibility to cut off benefits. They blame lawmakers for not going far enough to resolve the new system’s Catch-22s. How, they ask, can the typical welfare recipient—according to HHS, she’s a 30-year-old, single, African-American or Hispanic woman living in a city with two children born out of wedlock, no college degree, and a greater chance than women in the general population to be a victim of domestic violence—force an estranged boyfriend to pay child support, go to work without adequate child care or transportation, or find the time and money to get an education that could foster marketable skills? Opponents of the new system also point to recent HHS data that show welfare reductions beginning to slow in some states, suggesting that those still on welfare have the most complicated situations and will require more child-care, health-care, and job-training support.
In his 2000 budget proposal, Clinton addressed some of these concerns by asking Congress for $150 million for job training for fathers, $430 million for housing vouchers, and $150 million for transporting potential workers to job interviews. His budget also sought $18 billion over five years for child-care tax credits and subsidies and another $1.3 billion over five years to restore health and disability benefits and food stamps for the hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants who lost coverage under special provisions in the new welfare law.

For many advocates of the poor, these initiatives do not go far enough, especially for families who face not only economic hardship but also problems like mental illness or substance abuse. At the same time, others agree with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, R-Texas, that the proposals go too far. “The lives of the poor and needy have been improved greatly,” Archer told the Associated Press in January. “Now is not the time to abandon what has worked to go back to the failed system of throwing money at a problem.”

Among those at the U of C who are trying to determine whether the lives of the poor and needy have, in fact, improved is political scientist Evelyn Brodkin, an associate professor in the School of Social Service Administration and a lecturer in the Law School. Brodkin, who has followed welfare policy with an eye on what she calls the “street-level bureaucracies”—the organizations through which policy reaches its subjects—hopes to provide a Chicago-style, “deep-dish analysis” of the morphing of the new law from rhetoric into action.

“Formal statutes are where policies begin,” says Brodkin. “But they tell you little about the many forms they take as they are delivered. I look at public policy as it is converted into action within the public and non-governmental agencies responsible for implementation.”

Last fall, Brodkin began observing the interactions among administrators, caseworkers, and clients in Chicago-area welfare offices. Based on her preliminary fieldwork observations and interviews—to be detailed in a report due out early next year—she says that how the new law’s requirements are applied varies not only from neighborhood to neighborhood but also among caseworkers sharing the same office. She has noticed variations when it comes to deciding who will be required to work and on what terms.

For example, in areas of the city where jobs are more plentiful, she has found that recipients are more likely to receive help finding paid work, sometimes very desirable jobs. Where jobs are more scarce, however, there is a greater probability that similarly situated recipients will be channeled into other kinds of activities, including workfare, which requires work without pay.

“The complexity of the new law has profound implications for accountability in a democracy,” Brodkin warns. “Discretion is a two-edged sword: It can help fit decisions to individual needs or it can yield confusion, arbitrariness, and uncertainty. Where policy delivery involves discretion, it is a mistake to simply assume the content of policy from its formal rules. It is important to understand how discretion is used, the factors that shape its exercise, and the practical meaning it gives to welfare policy.”

Brodkin’s research on the implementation of welfare’s new work requirements is part of the SSA’s three-year Project on the Public Economy of Work, a set of studies funded by the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Open Society Institute. In addition to observing the practices of neighborhood welfare agencies, Brodkin and her collaborator Susan Lambert, also an associate professor in the SSA, plan to use Chicago as an urban laboratory to map the emerging network of neighborhood welfare agencies, community organizations, and private job-training firms. Lambert is also leading an investigation into the challenges of balancing work and family demands while in the low-wage workforce. Ultimately, says Brodkin, they hope to explain how the new welfare law is reshaping the possibilities for the urban poor to negotiate the everyday realities of welfare, work, and family.

“The procedures carried out by welfare-related groups tell part of the story,” explains Brodkin. “They tell the extent to which organizational arrangements and routine procedures within them create opportunities or obstacles for poor families, provide meaningful support for work or only supports on paper, and constrain or create new pathways for individuals who are trying to do better.”

Besides identifying kinks in the system carrying out welfare reform, U of C researchers want to grasp the new law’s impact on the daily lives of destitute children and their mothers and fathers.

Robert Goerge, AM’85, PhD’88, associate director of the University-affiliated Chapin Hall Center for Children, is particularly concerned about how the most vulnerable children are faring under the new law—those children who have been abused, who have mental illness or disabilities, who are juvenile delinquents.

“What many experts predict is that the pressure of the stricter work requirements could affect an individual’s parenting and result in the physical abuse and neglect of a child,” he says. “If we can identify families at high risk for negative outcomes for children, then we could target these families for additional services or exclude them from the work requirements.”

In an effort to identify those families, Goerge is leading a group of investigators in four states—California, Illinois, Massachusetts, and North Carolina—who will analyze the movement of children in and out of TANF and other social programs, using databases developed from the states’ computerized information systems. The data, he explains, could alert state officials to any patterns suggesting that children are frequently being taken out of families on TANF and placed in foster care as a result of abuse or neglect.

The project’s research team, sponsored by HHS and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, expects to release at the end of April its first conclusions derived from pre-reform statistics. In another year or two, these will be compared to post-reform data on children who have participated in TANF.

“For the first time we will have a clear picture of under what circumstances kids on public assistance move into foster care,” says Goerge, who also leads a soon-to-be-released study of Illinois welfare reform and serves on a National Research Council panel advising social-policy evaluators. “This speaks to the issue of whether AFDC actually did take care of mothers and children and if it helped to stabilize their income so they could keep their families together.”

How well the TANF program takes care of mothers concerns SSA assistant professor Julia Henly. She suspects that the instability often experienced by families on welfare will not significantly improve until the debate turns to what makes the low-wage workplace, not the individuals in it, unstable.

“There was little attention paid during the 1994–95 Capitol Hill debate over welfare reform to the competing role demands of working mothers,” says Henly. “We could have had a discussion about low-wage work reform that could have addressed changes in the minimum wage, child care, and health care—not welfare reform.”

In a chapter in Joel F. Handler and Lucie White’s Hard Labor: Women and Work in the Post Welfare Era (M. E. Sharpe, 1999), Henly reports her findings from interviews with mothers receiving welfare, other low-income mothers, and employers in Los Angeles County. These women, she found, faced numerous barriers to steady work and sufficient income: two-thirds earned $9 or less an hour; two-thirds had jobs that did not provide health insurance; one-fourth worked 30 hours a week or less; and 19 percent did not have regular child care, while most of those who did relied on relatives or friends. In addition, she discovered, employers often had to lay off their low-wage, part-time workers when business slowed. Henly would now like to build on these findings with a broader survey.

“If we expect women to successfully fulfill the dual—and often conflicting—roles of mother and worker, the workplace itself might benefit from significant reform,” Henly concluded, “and a formal, more adequate system of support should be adopted.”

Even more comprehensive information on the experiences of both children and women under the new law is expected to come from a four-year, $19-million study led by researchers at several universities, including P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, an associate professor in the Harris School. Though Chase-Lansdale will be joining the Northwestern faculty next year, she and a group of U of C doctoral students will continue their roles in the study, which will detail the experiences of nearly 3,000 low-income families—half receiving welfare, half working—in Chicago, Boston, and San Antonio.

This March, with support from government and private grants, study investigators began interviewing members of 2,800 families. Developmental observational methods will be used to understand the environments of young children, explains Chase-Lansdale, while ethnographic field-workers will participate in the daily lives of an additional 170 families.

According to the study’s preliminary focus-group interviews, welfare recipients feel they can meet the TANF requirements—but only if they have more time to make the transition to work, receive continued medical coverage, and get help with child care, job training, and, in some cases, learning English.

As women and children make up the majority of welfare recipients, it’s perhaps not surprising that their well-being is at the heart of these major studies. But another, even less understood group affected by welfare reform is the children’s fathers—the mothers’ often-estranged boyfriends, husbands, or ex-husbands.

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