Thursday, August 23, 2001

Welfare reformers point to victories

But critics say there are victims, too

By Emily Biuso
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Former President Clinton was hoping for success stories like that of Ronda Tuggle when he authorized an overhaul the welfare system five years ago this week.

        In 1996, Mrs. Tuggle was receiving welfare cash assistance. After obtaining her high school equivalency diploma and some job skills through a local agency, the North Fairmount woman now works with children with behavior problems, and she studies for an associate's degree in social work at Chatfield College.

        But some are not so lucky. Though many have moved from welfare to work, for some the transition has been from welfare poor to working poor.

        Hamilton County has been a leader at saving money while supporting the switch from welfare to work. Sweeping changes over the last five years have created new support programs, new workers, and reduced the number of welfare recipients.

        Though local advocates and officials clash about whether reform is a success, they do agree that welfare reform has changed everything.

        And it's not over.

        Welfare executives and activists continue to push for innovations to improve the system, but recent cuts to the county's welfare budget ignite fear that progress may be stunted.

        The Contact Center, an Over-the-Rhine advocacy group, held a rally Wednesday morning in front of the Hamilton County Administration building to call for improvements to the welfare system.

        “We've got to pull some money out of a hat somewhere,” said Cassandra Barham-Denton, welfare rights outreach organizer for the group.

        While debate over money persists, no one argues that the rolls have dramatically decreased.

        Since 1996, the average number of families statewide that receive monthly cash assistance plunged more than 57 percent per month so far in 2001. In Hamilton County, the numbers fell more than 53 percent in an average month so far this year.

Local innovation

        The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 eliminated a one-size-fits-all national program that guaranteed welfare checks for life. In its place is a law requiring states use those dollars to help people off welfare, impose deadlines and emphasize work.

        Ohio Works First, the state's version of welfare reform, provides up to 36 months of temporary assistance to needy families with (or soon to have) children. The program offers work and job training. After a family's 36th check, it is not eligible for cash assistance for at least two years.

        It has been up to Ohio's counties to educate the public about the law; determine criteria for exemptions; and provide training, work, and support to people who, in many cases, have gone a lifetime with little or no education or work experience.

        In Kentucky, the Cabinet for Families and Children has a community office in each county, and they, like local officials around the country, have struggled to meet the new needs of welfare recipients.

        Kentucky has developed programs to help families make the transition off welfare, including one that pays families to move because of a job offer.

        Some Ohio counties were slow to meet the demands of welfare reform, but Hamilton County has been an early and consistent leader, said Joel Potts, Ohio's welfare reform policy administrator.

        One of the county's champions is Carol Gibbs, founder and president of Accountability and Credibility Together (ACT), a Cincinnati collaborative of four agencies created in 1996 to help recipients get off welfare.

        “In its purest sense, it represents what we meant by welfare reform,” Mr. Potts said. “I don't think there's anything quite like it in the country.”

        ACT provides classes on budgeting home finances, high school equivalency and career preparedness, as well as child reading clubs and parenting groups.

        Mrs. Gibbs, a former single parent, can put herself in her clients' position, she said. “Do I really want someone to hand me a check, or do I want someone to tell me what to do so I never have to sit here and beg for money again?”

        Her philosophy has made the Over-the—Rhine agency a model. Between 1998 and 2000, ACT saved the county $10.9 million in welfare costs.

        When Mrs. Tuggle, 29, first came to ACT a year ago she expected a check. Instead, she found classes and staff who helped her become “an employable person.”

Mixed results

        But for every welfare reform success story, there is a tale of persistent poverty.

        “On the successful side you can look at the employment figures and they're better, you can look at the people out of poverty and it's better,” said Col Owens, senior attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati and a member of the county's human services planning committee.

        “(But) people are really struggling.”

        Homeless shelters, food pantries and soup kitchens have seen increases in clients, Mr. Owens said.

        In a study published last August, Steven Howe, a University of Cincinnati psychology professor, surveyed 60 Hamilton county women who had stopped receiving cash welfare benefits. At least 62 percent did not have jobs, and 47 percent exhibited symptoms of depression.

        “We need to change incentives so they're in the direction of working. All we've done has been to apply the stick. We haven't started feeding them the carrots,” Dr. Howe said.

        Mrs. Barham-Denton, who organized Wednesday's rally, knows how clients can feel belittled by the system.

        She received cash assistance off and on for 10 years before she secured full-time work in 1996. She remembers receiving “sanction notices” reprimanding her for missing appointments she had attended, and trying to explain her situation to distracted caseworkers.

        “Sometimes they made you feel so small,” she said.

        Mrs. Barham-Denton acknowledged that reform has meant some improvements, but they are only small steps. Her group, the Contact Center, is calling for more leniency in cash assistance time limits and increased emphasis on education and vocational programs.

        As Hamilton County's first welfare reform executive, Lora Jollis is an expert on the system.

        In the summer of 1996, she walked the streets of Over-the-Rhine, taking suggestions from recipients on what the new welfare system should do.

        Mrs. Jollis, now assistant director of the county's Department of Job and Family Services, firmly believes that the county's plan does benefit the needy.

        “Handing someone a check once a month does nothing to help them grow out of that dependency,” she said.

        She has seen people flourish and struggle under the new rules, she said, “but the cycle of dependency has been broken.”

Uncertain future

        Mrs. Jollis worries that the progress of the last five years will be compromised by recent budget cuts. State lawmakers did not renew about $25 million in contracts for welfare-related programs in Hamilton County.

        Mrs. Jollis said she also fears federal funding will decline.

        But the need for continuing with welfare reform is as simple as one newly working mother's story, said John Young, Hamilton County welfare reform executive.

        “She brought these kids to work and showed them her cubicle and said, "This is where your mom works.' Some little cubicle and some $8- or $10-dollar-an-hour job, or whatever it is,” he said.

        “But I don't think any of those moms were saying, "Hey kid, see my name on this welfare check? That's your mom.' That's the difference.”


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