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Report Says US Welfare Families Work but Remain Poor - 2002-04-25

A new study suggests many of the people who have left the United States' welfare rolls over the last six years have found jobs, but remain poor. Results of a study of seven Midwestern U.S. states come almost six years after President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law.

The study by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation found welfare caseloads throughout the region have dropped dramatically under welfare reform. Nationwide, the number of people receiving welfare has declined from 12 million to less than six million since 1996. Joyce Foundation President Ellen Alberding says most people who left welfare did find jobs, so welfare reform is a success by that measure.

"What we are concerned about now is how do you continue that success, how do you support people who have done what we have asked them to do, to stay in jobs and move up the work ladder as well as address - the issue of the people who remain on welfare?" Ms. Alberding said.

But Ms. Alberding says many former welfare recipients found only part-time or temporary jobs. Many have more money now than they did under welfare, but still do not earn enough to lift them above the federal poverty level. "Our most serious concern at this point is that people remain in poverty. A large portion of the people who are coming off the welfare rolls still appear to be below the poverty line," she said.

The Joyce Foundation is a public policy group that works on a variety of projects and studies to improve the quality of life in the Upper Midwestern states.

The welfare reform law signed in 1996 was aimed at using government aid as a means of temporary support for people training for or seeking employment. Congress is debating changes in the reform law with the hope of getting states to cut their caseloads even further.

Joyce Foundation program officer Jennifer Phillips says that will be difficult because a small percentage of people will never get off welfare. "When you are looking at the characteristics, if you will, of people who are remaining on the welfare rolls, they are typically people who have pretty significant barriers to getting, holding and keeping a job," she said.

Ms. Phillips says those barriers include mental health problems, domestic violence, and serious transportation problems especially for those who live in rural communities.

The foundation is recommending that state and federal governments continue investing in education and training. It also encourages state officials to remind former welfare recipients that they might still qualify for federal health care and food subsidies if they have low-wage jobs.

Ms. Phillips says welfare reform has not been perfect, but it has changed many people's mindset about the government's role in helping the poor. "The message is clearly out there that welfare is not an entitlement any longer, that there are obligations and requirements for recipients to get government assistance," she said.

There is some evidence that the economic recession is also putting up a barrier to some welfare recipients' efforts to find work. Ms. Phillips says five of the seven states in the study reported slightly higher caseloads in the year 2001 than the year before.