Having grown up on welfare, Rochelle Riordan had vowed never to ask for a government handout. That was before her hard-drinking husband kicked her and their young daughter out of their house near Lewiston, Maine, leaving her with a $300 bank account, a bad job market and a 15-year-old car held together in spots with duct tape.
Maine's welfare agency, she heard, was offering help for poor parents to go to college full time. With the state paying for day care and $513 a month in living expenses, Riordan, 37, has been on the dean's list every semester at the University of Southern Maine, expecting to graduate and start a social work career next spring. But this summer, her plans -- and Maine's Parents as Scholars program -- suddenly are on shaky ground; under new federal rules, studying for a bachelor's degree no longer counts by itself as an acceptable way for people on welfare to spend their time.
A decade after the government set out to transform the nation's welfare system, the limits on college are part of a controversial second phase of welfare reform that is beginning to ripple across the country. The new rules, written by Congress and the Bush administration, require states to focus intensely on making more poor people work, while discouraging other activities that might help untangle their lives. By Oct. 1, state and local welfare offices must figure out how to steer hundreds of thousands of low-income adults into jobs, or longer work hours. They also must adjust to limits on the length of time people on welfare can devote to trying to shed drug addictions, recover from mental illnesses or get an education.
This second generation of change reverses a central idea behind the 1996 law that ended six decades of welfare as an unlimited federal entitlement to cash assistance. The law decentralized welfare, handing states a lump sum of money and the freedom to design their own programs of temporary help for poor families. Ten years later, the government is tightening the federal reins.
Many state officials and their advocates are furious. "You had fixed block grants in exchange for state flexibility," said Elaine M. Ryan, deputy executive director of the American Public Human Services Association, which represents welfare directors around the country. "Now you have fixed block grants in exchange for federal micromanagement. . . . That was not the deal."
Based on interviews with welfare officials in 10 states, including in the Washington area, the new requirements conflict in significant ways with the eclectic approaches to welfare that states have chosen.
States are struggling to decide how to comply. Some are exploring the idea of walling off certain groups of welfare clients into separate, state-funded programs, avoiding large federal penalties by insulating people from the new rules. Some states are scrambling to change how their welfare clients spend their time. Others are frankly unsure what they will do.
‘My ticket ... out of poverty’
"States are kind of in a low-grade panic," said Ron Haskins, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who helped to write the 1996 law and later worked on welfare in the Bush White House.
In a climate of such flux, most of the nearly 2 million families on welfare nationwide are not yet feeling any change. Many will soon.
Riordan heard about the threat to her last year of college a few weeks ago. "I feel nauseous," she said. "This is my ticket . . . out of poverty."
In August 1996, when Congress passed the Welfare Reform Act, neither supporters nor critics predicted its dramatic effects: The number of families on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, as welfare became known, has plummeted by 60 percent.
Despite that unexpected success, when the law came up for renewal in 2002, lawmakers deadlocked in a bitter ideological fight over how it should be changed. Democrats argued that the government should give states more money to subsidize child care while parents were at work. Republicans argued that the work requirements were not strict enough.
The law, the GOP pointed out, had envisioned that half the adults on welfare would get jobs. In reality, fewer than one-third were working -- and in some places, many fewer than that -- because the law had given states an inducement: The more people a state moved off its welfare rolls, the smaller the share of those who remained had to work.
Last December, buried in a sprawling bill meant mainly to cut federal spending, Republicans finally got the welfare changes they wanted. They compel states to find jobs for fully half their adult clients, and they increase the required work hours from 20 hours per week to 30. Then, in late June, the Department of Health and Human Services issued strict new rules defining what counts as work -- and who must be counted.
Wade F. Horn, HHS's assistant secretary for children and families, said the closer federal regulation is necessary because states have been lax. "Some defined as work bed rest, going to a smoking-cessation program, getting a massage, doing an errand with a friend," Horn said. He acknowledged that federal officials do not know how often people have done those things, because states have not had to report such information.
The new rules say states may count toward their work-participation rates no more than six weeks per year that a client spends looking for a job, or receiving help such as drug or mental health treatment. And when reporting who is working, states must take into account extra people, including grandparents who are not on welfare but are raising children who get benefits.
"We expected the [rules] to be bad," said Robin Arnold-Williams, secretary of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. "They are worse than that." In that state, one-fourth of the 25,000 adults on welfare are not working while they try to conquer barriers such as addictions or too little education -- a policy in direct conflict with the new rules.
Even states that have emphasized work are facing new hurdles. According to recent federal figures, 50 percent of the adults on welfare in Virginia are employed. But under the expanded definition of who states must take into account in their work-participation rates, the commonwealth needs about 3,000 more people a month to get jobs, costing Virginia about $28 million more a year to help with child care and job searches, said Anthony Conyers Jr., commissioner of the Virginia Department of Social Services.
In the District, about 2,200 more people will need to go to work, said Kate Jesberg, head of the D.C. Department of Human Resources. Most, she said, will need more than the six weeks allotted to find a job, in no small part because two-thirds of the city's adults on welfare read at the fifth-grade level or less. The rules turn her staff into "extraordinary bean counters," Jesberg said. "Who cares if it takes six weeks or eight weeks? The point is, it is time well spent if you keep them in a job."
Federal definition of work
Maryland began three years ago requiring every adult on welfare to do something productive for 40 hours a week. Most of what they have done, such as getting a high school equivalency degree or counseling for domestic violence, does not meet the federal definition of work. "We are scrounging," said Marshall Cupe, a case manager in Prince George's County's Family Investment Division, who is combing through his 400 cases to try to shift people into subsidized jobs, volunteer work or other activities the government will recognize.
The new rules come with new paperwork. In Utah, temporary-assistance administrator Helen Thatcher said the program has emphasized vocational training to equip people to enter fields, such as health care, with plentiful jobs and opportunities for advancement. The training is still permitted, but her staff now will have to keep track every day of how much time nearly 1,400 clients spend on classes and homework.
A few states have quickly passed laws to adjust. New Hampshire just altered its program to try to navigate people into jobs more swiftly and penalize them more promptly if they miss appointments. Terry R. Smith, director of the Division of Family Assistance, said the state also has decided to move out of welfare 136 two-parent families, a small group for whom the rules say 90 percent must work. They will go into a separate state program that Smith said will cost New Hampshire $880,000 a year -- less than a $4 million federal penalty it risks incurring in a year or two if not enough are employed.
Many states cannot adjust as quickly, because some welfare changes will require approval of legislatures that will not convene until months after the federal rules take effect in October. In Maine, welfare administrators are debating whether to ask lawmakers to preserve Parents as Scholars as a separate state program. Since 1996, it has enabled about 1,000 low-income adults a year to go to college. Virtually no one who has graduated, state figures show, ever returned to welfare.
If its participants had to work 20 hours a week in addition to college, as the new rules require, "a lot of people wouldn't even try," said one of Riordan's friends, Emily Wood. Wood had a son at 17, married at 18, divorced at 22, and was working at a laundromat for $6.50 an hour before starting college with help from Parents as Scholars. At 28, she was named outstanding senior when she graduated from the University of Southern Maine in May. She is starting a master's degree and trying to decide between two job offers at social service agencies. They pay $15 an hour.