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Participation in ‘workfare’ fell sharply in Mass., study finds

Massachusetts has the nation’s lowest participation of welfare recipients working to receive their benefits, undermining one of the key reforms that was intended to move people from public assistance to self-sufficiency, according to a study to be released Thursday by a conservative Beacon Hill think tank.

Only 7.3 percent of people receiving welfare benefits in the state held jobs in fiscal 2011, the most recent year for which data were available, according to the Pioneer Institute. That’s roughly one-fourth the national average of about 30 percent.

Under the state- and federally-funded welfare program, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, eligible recipients are required to work 20 to 30 hours a week or perform community service to receive benefits, which average about $453 a month. Roughly 160,000 people in Massachusetts currently receive benefits, but people who are physically unable to work, mothers of young children, and others are exempt from the work requirement.

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In Massachusetts, participation in what’s known as workfare — which includes jobs, community service, and job training — fell from 22 percent of recipients in 2010, even as national participation rose, the study says.

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“Our state has taken its eye off the prize with regard to workfare,” said Greg Sullivan, research director at Pioneer and coauthor of the report. “It seems Massachusetts has effectively abandoned the idea.”

Sullivan, a former state inspector general, criticized Deval Patrick for “gutting” the work requirement when he was governor. “We were really the only state that had that kind of drop,” Sullivan said.

The report used data from the US Department of Health and Human Services for fiscal 2011, which ended June 2011, and found that Massachusetts was the only state with a workfare participation rate below 10 percent. Connecticut’s rate was 59 percent, New Hampshire’s 49 percent, and Maine’s 19 percent. Rhode Island, which ranked just above Massachusetts, had an 11 percent rate.

Massachusetts’ rate declined as the economy improved, according to the study. Participation during the Patrick administration peaked at 47.5 percent in the recession year of 2009, when unemployment climbed to nearly 9 percent statewide. In 2011, the jobless rate averaged about 7 percent. (The unemployment rate is currently less than 6 percent in the state).

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According to Sullivan, the state was able to sidestep the work requirement because the federal government offers caseload reduction credits to states that shrink their welfare rolls; the credits can offset workfare participation requirements. The state’s success in reducing welfare caseloads allowed workfare participation rates to decline without incurring federal penalties, Sullivan said.

He called on Governor Charlie Baker to “resuscitate the workfare program.” Baker was an architect of welfare reforms in the administration of Governor William Weld in the 1990s. The state’s workfare plan became a model for national welfare reform enacted during the administration of President Bill Clinton.

Earlier this month, Baker did not reappoint Stacey Monahan as executive director of the Department of Transitional Assistance. No successor has been named.

A spokesman for Baker said in a statement that the governor “understands improving performance within the welfare system is imperative to ensuring families who are struggling are getting the assistance they need in difficult times.”

“Massachusetts has an opportunity to reform and strengthen the current system,” the statement said, “to get more individuals working again through education, job-training, and employer incentives.’’

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Deborah Harris, staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, a nonprofit poverty law center in Boston, said the Patrick administration’s efforts to get welfare recipients into jobs fell short and she hopes that changes in the Baker administration.

“The programs aren’t there . . . there’s no funding for them,” Harris said. “We need to spend some money. You get what you pay for.”

John Drew, executive director of Action for Boston Community Development, a nonprofit social services agency, said he feared the critique of the state’s welfare program vilified unemployed poor people who are already struggling.

Drew said the Massachusetts economy is a difficult place for the state’s poorest — often women with children or the homeless — who also lack skills to fill many job openings.

“We’re not talking about a whole lot of people sponging off the government, we’re talking about people in need,” Drew said. “It’s a very punitive world.”

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse @globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.