Sunday, July 16, 2000

The urbanization of welfare

Reforms raise African-American percentage

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As welfare rolls continue to plummet in Ohio and around the country, the percentage of total recipients who are African-American has risen.

        In 1995, two years before the state placed lifetime limits on cash assistance benefits, 42 percent of Ohio's 620,000 recipients were black.

        As of May, 57 percent of Ohio's 244,000 welfare recipients were African-American. At the same time, the percentage of whites on the rolls dropped from 54 percent to 40 percent in Ohio, an analysis of records from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services shows. The U.S. rate of whites on welfare rolls has fallen 2 percent.

        The shift in the racial proportion of rolls is the result of the urbanization of welfare, said Kate Allen, a senior research analyst for the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

        The center will release a national study on Wednesday about the changing demographics of welfare recipients because of reform legislation.

        “Employment discrimination could be a factor,” Ms. Allen said. “Another factor is the concentration of poverty. It's harder to get out of when you live in neighborhoods of 40 percent or more of poverty. Those kinds of neighborhoods are overwhelmingly urban, and that has a definite racial overlay to it.”

        People are more likely to be chronic welfare recipients if they drop out of high school, are single or have little work experience, said Roger Ward, manager of analysis, research and monitoring for the Hamilton County Department of Human Services.

        And the rates of all those social indicators in Hamilton County are higher for African-Americans, making them more likely to remain on welfare, Mr. Ward said.

        “You're more likely to cycle on and off if you've never been married, if you dropped out of school and if you haven't worked,” Mr. Ward said.

        People who have disabilities are also more likely to be on public assistance for long periods of time, he said.

        Hamilton County's rate of black welfare recipients — 80 percent compared to 68 percent in 1995 — is highest among Ohio's urban counties. More than 5,000 of the county's 20,000 total recipients of all races and ages are African-American children 6-12.

        “Welfare reform has not worked well for African-Americans in general and African-American children, in particular,” said Eileen Cooper Reed, child advocate for the Cincinnati office of the Children's Defense Fund and a member of the Hamilton County Human Services Planning Committee.

        The first Ohioans to reach their 36-month limits lose their cash assistance payments on Oct. 1. The state calls its cash assistance program Ohio Works First (OWF). Many other public assistance programs for low-income people — food stamps, medical coverage — are not affected.

        In 1995 in Hamilton County, there were 38,700 African-Americans receiving cash assistance. In May, there were 16,600.

        During the same time, the number of whites receiving cash assistance dropped from 17,000 to 3,700.

        Another possible reason for the change in racial makeup of welfare rolls is the shift in job availability, said Ms. Allen of the Brookings Institution.

        The organization did a recent study — “Where Are the Jobs?” — that showed that the number of jobs is decreasing in urban centers and increasing in the suburbs. The study of trends between 1995 and '96 showed that Cincinnati lost 2,000 jobs in its urban core and gained 12.4 percent in the pre dominantly white suburbs, for a total of 491,000 jobs on the urban fringe.

        “Poor people often don't have cars, so they depend on transit,” Ms. Allen said. “They have to drop off their kids at child care. They don't have the social support network.”

        The Contact Center is an agency in Over-the-Rhine that has organized a local welfare rights coalition consisting of several women who have been on welfare.

        “In our experience with white women, they tell us that the social workers push them more into jobs,” said Katy Heins, Contact Center director. “But the black women say they are pushed more into training, parenting classes, substance abuse treatment. There is racism at many different levels.”

        Charmaign is one of the Contact Center's employees. She is in her 40s, has five children and receives cash assistance. The Hamilton County woman asked to be identified only by her first name because her children are embarrassed that she is on public assistance.

        She works 30 hours a week at the center in order to receive her welfare check.

        “I think a lot of it is education,” she said about the difference in rates between blacks and whites. “Even if we (African-Americans) have an education, they don't recognize it.”

        She also said caseworkers are “disgruntled, burned out” and generally treat white clients with more respect than they do blacks.

        The Hamilton County Department of Human Services offers more programs and individualized attention to public assistance recipients than ever before, said department spokeswoman Mindy Good. Clients have the opportunity to talk with their caseworker's supervisor if they are dissatisfied.

        “Every large urban area has the same issues we do,” Ms. Good said.

        Charmaign, who lives in a close-in Cincinnati suburb and takes the bus to work — she doesn't know how to drive — receives $357 a month for her and her three dependent children.

        She loses that benefit Oct. 1.

        “My plan is ... I'm a spontaneous person,” she said. “I've got my garden tools, my fax machine from the pawn shop. I am resourceful and creative. I plan to make it any way I can.”


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