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MLRI REPORT: "False Hope for Low-Income Families: The Administration's "New" Welfare Reform Proposal"

Date: 
05/01/2001
Author: 
Deborah Harris, MLRI
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False Hope for Low-Income Families:The Administration's "New" Welfare Reform Proposal

Mass. Law Reform Institute, May 1, 2001

Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift announced on April 30 that her Administration has introduced legislation to help low-income parents on welfare gain access to education and training.  In a break with her two predecessors in the corner office, Governor Swift says that her Administration realizes that participation in education or training programs should count toward the welfare work requirement in order for welfare recipients to have a chance of obtaining jobs that will lift their families out of poverty.  Governor Swift's stated recognition of the value of education and training for low-income families is a welcome reversal of the Administration's long-standing position favoring job search and work, even for families without job skills or credentials.[1]Unfortunately, the actual bill filed by the Governor for the most part is not new: it simply recycles punitive proposals the Administration offered in past years that would make it even harder for welfare recipients to participate in education or training.  The Legislature in the past has wisely rejected these proposals and should continue to do so.  For the reasons that follow, the Legislature should reject the Administration's bill and should also direct DTA promptly to remove the barriers to education and training DTA itself has created.                 

Imposing a work requirement on parents of pre-school children would impede their access to education and training.  In crafting the Massachusetts welfare reform law, the Legislature wisely chose not to impose the 20-hour per week work requirement on parents of children under age 6. Instead, the Legislature gave DTA the authority to require parents of pre-school children to participate in education or training programs for up to 20 hours per week and has annually appropriated funds DTA could have used for education and training.[2] Participation in such programs is more flexible than work and therefore more compatible with parents' child-rearing  responsibilities.  In a reprise of a proposal repeatedly offered by the Administration in past years and rejected by the Legislature, the Governor's bill proposes to amend the state's 1995 welfare law to require these parents of pre-school children to work for 20 hours a week. The Administration's bill would allow education and training to count for only 10 of those hours.  Because many education and training programs meet for more than 10 hours per week, parents who want to access education or training would actually have to engage in work-related activities for 30 hours per week or more and would have to place their children in full-time day care.[3]  Many parents of young children will be unable to accomplish this and will therefore be forced to forgo the education and training that they need. The Administration's proposal is therefore a step backward in the effort to ensure access to education and training.[4]

Increasing the work requirement to 30 hours for parents of pre-school children and to 35 hours for any family receiving a time limit extension is unwise.The Administration's bill proposes to increase the work requirement for parents of school-age children to 30 hours per week and to increase the work requirement for any family (including a family with young children) who receives a time limit extension to 35 hours per week.[5]  In each instance, the Administration's bill would allow education or training to count toward only 50% of the required hours, ensuring that parents who try to access education or training will have to engage in multiple work-related activities each week.  The recent report of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (MTF) and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay (UW), Off Welfare... On to Independence (April 2001), recommends that the work requirement for parents of school-age children be increased to 30 hours, but only if  recipients are allowed to meet the entire requirement by participating in education or training.[6]   The Administration's proposal ignores this key element of the MTF/UW report and would allow education or training to count for only 50% of the increased work requirement. As a result, these mostly single parents who want education or training would have to hold down a job for at least 15 hours per week, attend an education or training program that may meet for another 20 to 30 hours per week, arrange transportation to and from both of these activities, locate after-school and/or evening child care for their children and figure out how to transport the children between school, day care and home, find time for their own studies and to supervise their children's homework, and cook, clean, shop, do the laundry and other household chores.  This will be an insurmountable task for most of the families on the current welfare caseload and will prevent these parents from getting the education and training they desperately need.[7]

At the same time that the Governor's proposal would impose this rigid and unrealistic scheme, it purports to allow for one 3-month extension of time-limited benefits to enable a recipient to complete an education or training program.  The Governor is to be congratulated for realizing the short-sightedness of DTA's regulation which categorically bars a recipient from obtaining a time limit extension in order to complete an education or training program.[8]  However, unless and until the Administration takes meaningful steps to enable more recipients to enter education and training programs prior to reaching the time limit, few families will benefit from this proposal.

The Governor fails to acknowledge the full financial costs of her proposal.  Increasing the number of recipients who must engage in work-related activities and increasing the number of hours of work-related activities in which welfare recipients must participate would result in an increased demand for child care.[9]  We estimate that increasing the work requirement to 30 hours would cost $14.5 million a year for child care assuming half of the families subject to the work requirement get and use child care subsidies for summer and after school care.[10]  We estimate that requiring parents of pre-school children to work would cost $32.9 million a year for child care assuming half of the families not currently in a DTA activity or receiving child care get and use child care subsidies for pre-school care.[11]  The Governor herself has previously recognized that her proposal would cost far more than the $5.7 million for child care she now says will be sufficient.  In January 1999, the Adminstration requested $33 million for FY 00 to pay for child care needed for essentially the same proposal.  In January 2000, the Administration requested $18 million for FY 01 just to pay for child care needed to extent the work requirement to parents of pre-school children.  This January, in House 1, the Administration proposed $5.7 million for child care to extend the work requirement to parents of pre-school children; the Administration's proposal at that time did not include increasing the work hours to 30 and the Governor has not requested any additional funds for child care for that component of her recent proposal.The Governor has not explained why $5.7 million is enough to pay for the child care that would be required by her recent proposal when (1) the Administration requested $33 million in January 1999 for essentially the same changes the Administration is proposing now, (2) the Administration requested $18 million in January 2000 just to extend the work requirement to parents of pre-school children, and (3) the Administration requested $5.7 million in January of this year just to extend the work requirement to parents of pre-school children.  Even if funds were appropriated to pay for more child care slots for families affected by the Administration's proposal, it is unlikely that the current system could absorb this increased demand. Many low-income families who have child care vouchers simply cannot find providers to take them.  The Administration's proposal does nothing to address this systemic problem.Moreover, if the Governor is committed to increasing access to education and training, the Administration will have to fund additional program slots. The Administration's FY 02 budget proposal contains no new resources to fund education and training.  If education and training slots are not available, recipients will be left with no option but to fulfill the entire work requirement by accepting low-wage, dead-end jobs.[12]

DTA should be directed promptly to eliminate the barriers to education and training that it has created.The greatest barriers to education and training facing Massachusetts welfare recipients have been erected by the Administration's own Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA).  Those barriers include DTA's policies of: 1) not allowing education and training to count toward the work requirement, even though the 1995 law specifically provides that participation in a a training experience should count; 2) failing to inform recipients about education and training opportunities and failing to encourage them to participate; 3) directing resources away from substantive education and training programs to fund job search programs that place recipients in low-wage, unstable jobs; and 4) barring time limit extensions to complete an education or training program.  No legislation is needed for the Administration to eliminate these administrative barriers. If the Governor is serious about making education and training more accessible to low-income parents, she should order DTA to change these practices immediately, and we call on her to do so now.  If the Governor will not direct DTA to act, the Legislature should do so.  The Legislature should also reject the punitive and short-sighted proposals in the Governor's bill.  

Conclusion

We applaud the Governor's stated commitment to increasing education and training opportunities for families on welfare.  For the reasons stated above, we urge the Legislature to reject the Governor's newly filed bill and urge the Governor or, if necessary, the Legislature to tear down the barriers to education and training that DTA has unilaterally and unreasonably created.  For more information contact the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, 617-357-0700: Ruth Bourquin (ext. 333);  Deborah Harris (ext. 313); Margaret Monsell (ext. 304).

  • [1]  Over the past several years, Governors Weld and Cellucci repeatedly vetoed legislative proposals directing DTA to allow education and training to count toward the welfare work requirement.  Since 1995 when the state's welfare reform law was enacted, 17,000 families have reached the two-year welfare time limit without having been able to access education and training to prepare themselves for life without any cash assistance from the state.  As documented in a recent report by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay, Off Welfare... On to Independence (April 2001), Massachusetts is one of the few states in the country that does not allow education and training to count toward the welfare work requirement. On to Independence at 2.
  • [2]  DTA has only recently begun saying that it will exercise its authority to require parents of pre-school children to participate in education or training programs.  See DTA Field Ops Memos 2000-7B (March 10, 2000) and 2001-9 (Feb. 20, 2001).  In addition, DTA has redirected many of the monies appropriated for education and training into pure job search programs that do not prepare recipients for good jobs.
  • [3]  Because many training programs meet for 30 hours per week, parents of pre-school children who want to participate in those programs would, under the Administration's proposal, actually have to engage in 40 hours per week of activity, 30 hours of training and 10 hours of work.  For many low-income single parents, this is simply too much. Even as to education or training programs that meet for fewer hours each week, by requiring that a recipient participate in work and an education or training activity, the proposal ignores the realities of life for these low-income, often single parent families.  The proposal fails to account for additional hours that these parents would have to spend traveling between the two different activities as well as to day care providers to pick up their children.
  • [4]The Administration's bill would also require all new recipientsBincluding parents whose youngest child is 2Bto engage in structured job search for 20 hours per week during the first 60 days that they receive benefits. Under current law, the requirement of work-related activities applies only to parents of school-age children and does not take effect until after the first 60 days of benefits, to allow families to stabilize and prepare for participation.  This added structured job search requirement would have the effect of pushing families immediately into low-wage jobs before they have had an opportunity to enroll in education or training programs, making it less likely that they will ever be able to get the education and training that they need.
  • [5]  The 30-hour proposal was offered by the Administration in the FY 00 budget recommendation and rejected by the Legislature. The 35-hour requirement for families on a time limit extension was declared invalid by a state court in June of 2000, and the Administration's FY 01 budget proposal to reinstate it was also rejected by the Legislature.
  • [6]  Even if education and training counted toward 100% of the hours, 30 hours is simply too much for most of these families.  Both the Administration and the MTF/UW report fail to recognize the complexity of low-income parents' lives.  Many of these parents are dealing with homelessness, domestic violence and children with special needs.  Homeless families in shelter have to do housing search and are also required to do certain shelter activities: they simply do not have 30 hours left in the week.  Most welfare parents do not have a reliable car, so it takes them a long time to get to and from work and child care, to take their children to medical appointments, to go grocery shopping and to food pantries, to go to the laundromat, and to attend all of the meetings that are already required of welfare recipients. Many parents have cognitive impairments or physical health problems that make it harder for them to accomplish all of the tasks needed to take care of their families.  The Legislature wisely chose not to require more than 20 hours of work activities, and the report and the Administration fail to make a case for requiring more.  For a fuller critique of the MTF/UW report, see MLRI's publication, A Mass. Taxpayer's/United Way Report on Welfare: Several Steps Forward, Two Missteps." [No longer available at neighborhoodlaw.org; see Count Education and Training Toward Welfare Work Requirement and Off Welfare...On to Independence.]
  • [7]  An alternative proposal already pending in the Legislature that would be more workable would retain education and training as the appropriate activities for parents of pre-school children, retain the 20-hour per week work requirement for parents of school-age children, and allow 50% of the 20-hour work requirement to be met through education or training.  Many parents would still encounter difficulties accessing education and training under this proposal. However, it would allow more parents of school age children to meet the work requirement and obtain education or training than the Administration's bill.
  • [8]  See 106 CMR 203.210(B).  This regulation is not required by statute.  The state's welfare law allows DTA to grant extensions in any appropriate case.
  • [9]  There are currently over 16,000 children on the waiting list for a child care subsidy.  It is unfair to these families to make them keep waiting while spending new child care dollars to extend the welfare work requirement.  Some of these families may be forced to leave their jobs and apply for welfare because they cannot afford child care.
  • [10]  The state cost for a school-age child care slot is $4,940/year.  There were 3,263 families subject to the requirement as of February 2001.  We estimated 1.8 children per family and assumed that all children would use pre-school care.  Some children may be older and not need care, and some may be younger (children excluded by the family cap) and need more expensive care.  Because some of these families may already be using after school care and some may not be in an activity at a particular point in time, we have applied a 50% reduction to the total, resulting in a projected cost of $14.5 million.
  • [11]  The state cost for a pre-school child care slot is $8,060/year.  As of February 2001, there were 4,533 families in this group who were not currently in a DTA activity or using a state child care subsidy.  We estimated 1.8 children per family and assumed that all children would use pre-school care.  Some children may be younger and need more expensive care.  Some families may use only part-time care for which OCCS pays 70% of the base rate (most families get a full-time subsidy).   Because some of the families may not be in an activity at a particular point in time and some may use part-time care, we have applied a 50% reduction to the total, resulting in a projected cost of $32.9 million.
  • [12]  Already pending before the Legislature is a bill sponsored by the House Chair of the Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee, Representative Antonio Cabral of New Bedford, to earmark monies to be used for new, integrated education and training programs.  The bill would also require DTA to contract with the Department of Public Health to conduct comprehensive assessments to determine what barriers to employment, such as low literacy, learning disabilities, health problems and domestic violence, are faced by recipients subject to the time limit.  This is consistent with one of the recommendations in the MTF/UW report On to Independence. Chairman Cabral's bill would also provide that a recipient's time limit would be tolled if an appropriate program is not available to address the assessed needs. These are the kinds of initiatives that are lacking in the Administration's bill but are needed to assist the families remaining on the welfare caseload.
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