The welfare state is bigger than ever despite a decade of policies designed to wean poor people from public aid.
The number of families receiving cash benefits from welfare has plummeted since the government imposed time limits on the payments a decade ago. But other programs for the poor, including Medicaid, food stamps and disability benefits, are bursting with new enrollees.
The result, according to an Associated Press analysis: Nearly one in six people rely on some form of public assistance, a larger share than at any time since the government started measuring two decades ago.
Critics of the welfare overhaul say the numbers offer fresh evidence that few former recipients have become self-sufficient, even though millions have moved from welfare to work. They say the vast majority have been forced into low-paying jobs without benefits and few opportunities to advance.
“If the goal of welfare reform was to get people off the welfare rolls, bravo,” said Vivyan Adair, a former welfare recipient who is now an assistant professor of women’s studies at Hamilton College in upstate New York. “If the goal was to reduce poverty and give people economic and job stability, it was not a success.”
Proponents of the changes in welfare say programs that once discouraged work now offer support to people in low-paying jobs. They point to expanded eligibility rules for food stamps and Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, that enable people to keep getting benefits even after they start working.
“I don’t have any problems with those programs growing, and indeed, they were intended to grow,” said Ron Haskins, a former adviser to President Bush on welfare policy.
‘Huge step toward self-sufficiency’
“We’ve taken the step of getting way more people into the labor force and they have taken a huge step toward self-sufficiency. What is the other choice?” he asked.
In the early 1990s, critics contended the welfare system encouraged unemployment and promoted single-parent families. Welfare recipients, mostly single mothers, could lose benefits if they earned too much money or if they lived with the father of their children.
Major changes in welfare were enacted in 1996, requiring most recipients to work but allowing them to continue some benefits after they started jobs. The law imposed a five-year limit on cash payments for most people in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF. Some states have shorter time limits.
Nia Foster fits the pattern of dependence on government programs. She stopped getting cash welfare payments in the late 1990s and has moved from one clerical job to another. None provided medical benefits.
The 32-year-old mother of two from Cincinnati said she supports her family with help from food stamps and Medicaid.
Foster said she did not get any job training when she left welfare. She earned her high-school equivalency last year at a community college.
“If you want to get educated or want to succeed, the welfare office don’t care,” Foster said. “I don’t think they really care what you do once the benefits are gone.”
Foster now works in a tax office, a seasonal job that will end after April 15. She hopes to enroll at the University of Cincinnati this spring and would like to study accounting. She is waiting to find out if she qualifies for enough financial aid to cover tuition.
“I like data processing, something where it’s a bunch of invoices and you have to key them in,” Foster said. “I want to be an accountant so bad.”
Shannon Stanfield took a different, less-traveled path from welfare, thanks to a generous program that offered her a chance to get a college education.
Stanfield, 36, was cleaning houses to support her two young children four years ago when she learned about a program for welfare recipients at nearby Hamilton College, a private liberal arts school in Clinton, N.Y.
“At the time I was living in a pretty run-down apartment,” said Stanfield, who was getting welfare payments, Medicaid and food stamps. “It wasn’t healthy.”
The program, called the Access Project, accepts about 25 welfare-eligible parents a year. Hamilton waives tuition for first-year students and the program supplements financial aid in later years. Students get a host of social and career services, including help finding internships and jobs and financial assistance in times of crisis.
About 140 former welfare recipients have completed the program and none still relies on government programs for the poor, said Adair, the Hamilton professor who started the Access Project in 2001.
Stanfield, who still gets Medicaid and food stamps, plans to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in theater. She wants to be a teacher.
“I slowly built up my confidence through education,” Stanfield said. “I can’t honestly tell you how much it has changed my life.”
Programs such as the Access Project are not cheap, which is one reason they are rare. Tuition and fees run about $35,000 a year at Hamilton, and the program’s annual budget is between $250,000 and $500,000, Adair said.
In 2005, about 5.1 million people received monthly welfare payments from TANF and similar state programs, a 60 percent drop from a decade before.
But other government programs grew, offsetting the declines.
About 44 million people — nearly one in six in the country — relied on government services for the poor in 2003, according to the most recent statistics compiled by the Census Bureau. That compares with about 39 million in 1996.
Also, the number of people getting government aid continues to increase, according to more recent enrollment figures from individual programs.
Medicaid rolls alone topped 45 million people in 2005, pushed up in part by rising health care costs and fewer employers offering benefits. Nearly 26 million people a month received food stamps that year.
Cash welfare recipients, by comparison, peaked at 14.2 million people in 1994.
There is much debate over whether those leaving welfare for work should be offered more opportunities for training and education, so they do not have to settle for low-paying jobs that keep them dependent on government programs.
“We said get a job, any job,” said Rep. Jim McDermott, chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees welfare issues. “And now we expect them to be making it on these minimum-wage jobs.”
McDermott, D-Wash., said stricter work requirements enacted last year, when Congress renewed the welfare overhaul law, will make it even more difficult for welfare recipients to get sufficient training to land good-paying jobs.
But people who support the welfare changes say former recipients often fare better economically if they start working, even in low-paying jobs, before entering education programs.
“What many people on TANF need first is the confidence that they can succeed in the workplace and to develop the habits of work,” said Wade Horn, the Bush administration’s point man on welfare overhaul.
“Also, many TANF recipients didn’t have a lot of success in the classroom,” Horn said. “If you want to improve the confidence of a TANF recipient, putting them in the classroom, where they failed in the past, that is not likely to increase their confidence.”
Horn noted that employment among poor single mothers is up and child poverty rates are down since the welfare changes in 1996, though the numbers have worsened since the start of the decade.
Horn, however, said he would like to see local welfare agencies provide more education and training to people who have already moved from welfare to work.
“I think more attention has to be paid to helping those families move up the income scale, increasing their independence of other government welfare programs,” Horn said.
“The true goal of welfare to work programs should be self-sufficiency.”