Is welfare to work working?by Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
Getting people back to work is the focus of welfare programs. Most people agree that concept worked well in Minnesota in the past ten years. Thousands of people moved from welfare to work but there's concern budget cuts are pushing some back to public assistance.
Moorhead, Minn. — Joe Peterson remembers the basic concept was a simple one -- give people on welfare the tools they need to get a job.
That was the basis of WorkFirst, a welfare-to-work pilot project that started in Clay and Carver counties in late 1996. Some components of WorkFirst are part of the Minnesota Family Investment Program, or MFIP.
Joe Peterson was a Clay County Social Services supervisor who helped implement the WorkFirst pilot project in Clay County.
"WorkFirst really put in a lot of those incentives, and many of them are still in the Minnesota Family Investment Program, for people to earn their way out of poverty. And it was an enormous success," says Peterson.
WorkFirst used a carrot-and-stick approach. People had to get a job or their welfare benefits would be cut off.
But if they went to work, there was a lot of support to help them succeed. There was help with child care costs, help with transportation, medical care, even programs to help people update their wardrobe for the workplace.
Joe Peterson now heads a community action agency in Moorhead which runs a variety of social service programs. He says budget cuts have undermined the initial success of the welfare to work idea.
Many of the support programs are much smaller, or were eliminated under the Minnesota Family Investment Program.
"What we're starting to see is people recycling back on to MFIP or public assistance because we've taken those basic support systems away," says Peterson, "And it just doesn't make any economic sense to me."
An analysis of the WorkFirst pilot program found it significantly increased the number of people who moved from welfare to work as compared with the Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC system, that was in place prior to 1996.
Researchers felt the support services like childcare and transportation were a key reason for the program success.
Chuck Johnson, assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, says there's no doubt eliminating support services brings people back to welfare programs.
"It's very clear that for a family that has problems with child care, or a family that has problems with transportation, they end up coming back to assistance. And if there were more resources to plug in just at the right time, you might be able to prevent some of that," says Johnson.
But the Department of Human Services has to work with the money it's given by the Legislature, says Johnson, and programs like child care subsidies have been cut in recent years.
Many of the support programs in the early days of WorkFirst were funded by nonprofit organizations and foundations. Johnson says that funding is generally short-term, so if government doesn't take over those programs, they shrink or are eliminated when private funding runs out.
Lysa Ringquist says without an education, she would still be stuck in the poverty and welfare cycle.
Ringquist works as a community organizer in Moorhead. She says she had a job, but ended up on welfare when she couldn't make enough money on her low wages to support her two children.
"I went to college mainly to get off welfare, to increase my wages. Wages that made a difference for housing, for child care, self-sufficiency," says Ringquist.
When she was on welfare in the 1980s, going to school was considered work, says Ringquist. That's not the case now, because federal rules allow one year in school before people have to get a job.
Ringquist says the emphasis on work means it's more difficult for people to get an education and improve their chances of getting out of poverty.
Duke Schempp says many people may have moved from welfare to work, but they're still stuck in a cycle of poverty. Schempp runs the Moorhead-based People Escaping Poverty Project. He says limiting education and cutting support programs like child care and transportation assistance for working families is shortsighted.
"We can continually pay to pull people out of a river. We pull them out one at a time and they keep falling in upstream, and until we go upstream to stop them from falling in, all we're going to do is pull them out. That's not going to stop poverty," says Schempp.
But stopping poverty isn't the measuring stick Minnesota officials are most concerned about. Right now the state is not meeting the federal goal for moving 50 percent of welfare recipients from welfare to work. Minnesota officials say 3,052 people need to find jobs to meet that goal.
Chuck Johnson of the Department of Human Services says it's unlikely the state will meet the federal target, and he says new federal rules expected next month may make the target even more difficult to reach.
If the goal isn't met, officials say the federal government threatens to cut $24 million in public assistance funding to the state.