By TERESSA GENETTI-SCOTT
With some welfare recipients in Utah facing an end to benefits this December, the University of Utah released a study last week that raises new concerns about culling long-term recipients from welfare rolls.
In 1996, Utah reformed its welfare program. Under the new system, families’ cash assitance will be limited to three years over a lifetime.
The Department of Workforce Services commissioned the study to address employment barriers of families at risk due the limit on cash assistance. Experts have praised the study as the most comprehensive analysis of long-term welfare users in the state.
Shirley Weathers, a consultant working for the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Utah, said many families who seek assistance would never be able to meet a time limit of five years, let alone three.
“The problem with time limits is that there is a segment of the welfare population that is not so fortunate; they’re not so job ready,” she said.
The study, a sample of 325 families receiving welfare for an average of three years, found that long-term recipients had considerably higher levels of mental and physical health problems and more family and work barriers than other welfare recipients.
Twenty percent of those facing the welfare cutoff will be allowed exemptions to the limits, which Weathers said is plenty as long as Utah keeps its favorable job market. But in bad times, she said the case loads increase and jobs are not as easily found.
“There will continue to be people who bump up against that time limit who need an exemption if they are going to survive economically, but there won’t be any more exemptions available,” Weathers said.
Mason Bishop, public affairs director for the Department of Workforce Services, said the public has mandated a system of time limits.
“For years and years, I think the public sentiment was such that they were frustrated with people being on welfare for long periods of time, and they wanted that changed,” he said.
The combination of a time limit and an emphasis on working have proven to be an incentive toward self-sufficiency for many recipients, he said.
For Orem resident Diana Brown, the limits forced her into making career decisions faster. When she was 22, her husband left her right after she told him she was pregnant. Left without any savings, Brown turned to the state for financial assistance.
“For years and years, I think the public sentiment was such that they were frustrated with people being on welfare for long periods of time, and they wanted that changed.”
— Mason Bishop, public affairs director for the Department of Workforce Services
For Brown, the benefits limit was a strong motivating force to go to work, but she said the system might not be as effective for others as it was for her.
“I realized I got this kid for the rest of my life and there’s nobody to take care of me, so I’ve got to have a decent job to do that,” said Brown, who is studying computer programming at Utah Valley State College through the assistance of Workforce Services. “Plus, I think it gives you more self esteem making your own living instead of living off everyone else.”
Pregnancy is also what sent Salt Lake resident Angela Anderson on welfare. After having her first son Dominic almost four years ago, she has struggled to find affordable daycare. Since the birth of Anderson’s second child, Destiny, a year ago, daycare has become an even bigger issue.
Because Anderson relies on the bus for transportation, she said it is difficult to find a job that allows her to coordinate between daycare and work. The University of Utah study listed daycare as the No. 1 barrier to finding work for long-term welfare recipients.
Anderson wanted to get into a training program immediately, but by the time she was able to start, the clock had already been ticking for a year.
“I kept telling them I wanted to go to school, but because of the fact that there are so many jobs out there starting at $8 to $9 an hour, they said,`You can go find a job,'” she said.
During the 1999 Legislation session, Anderson lobbied for House Bill 288, a bill that would have extended the time limits to some welfare recipients by six months.
“Before (setting) this time limit, if they sent out a letters to people asking their opinion, I didn’t get any because I would definitely have put in my opinion,” said Anderson, who thinks the legislature created time limits without enough research.
Gina Cornia, a Utah poverty advocate, also spent much of her time lobbying for House Bill 288. Cornia said the bill would have given the legislature a little more time to research the effects of time limits. She also worries that limits have been imposed with too little debate.
“Who’s to say 36 is the magic number? I mean, it was a completely arbitrary decision to have it 36 months,” Cornia said. “National stats say the average stay on welfare is six years, so they suddenly sort of magically decide that 36 months will work.”
However, Bishop said Workforce Services did not recommend 36 months arbitrarily. He said the average stay on welfare in Utah is 21 months.
“Essentially, what the three-year time limit ended up being was a compromise between those that wanted the federal five-year limit and those that wanted the shorter two-year limit,” Bishop said.
Cornia agrees that for some people, having a limit is the incentive they need to get back to work, but she said experimenting with time limits to cut costs is not fair to children. Cornia said she can think of no better way to spend tax money than to help needy families.
“I don’t want my tax dollars going to bomb Iraq. I don’t want my tax dollars used to build a smarter bomb. I want my tax money to go to feed little kids, to go help those moms have some dignity and security. What better way for our tax money to be spent,” she said.
Cornia doesn’t have evidence to prove the time limits are necessarily bad, but her concerns have led her to be vocal. She plans to continue lobbying against time limits.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe I’m wrong. I would love it,” she said. “If three years is long enough, you know what, wahoo. But we just don’t know, and why not err on the generous side instead of the punitive side?”