The “Act to Foster Economic Independence,” which contains significant and far-reaching changes to the state’s welfare laws, zipped through legislative review last week and conflicting versions are now being debated in the House and Senate.
At ABCD we applaud the legislation’s emphasis on helping welfare recipients to find jobs. It includes $5 million for a “full employment program” that focuses on job placement, not monetary assistance. It also calls for specialist positions to provide targeted employment and training assistance.
But we worry that needed job-training, education and placement services will not be available. Job-training and education have suffered ongoing reductions including a recent almost 20 percent cut from sequestration. Welfare recipients struggling to get back on their feet after lay-offs, illness, family crisis and other problems, have fewer and fewer resources.
Currently, welfare is limited to two consecutive years with a five-year lifetime maximum. So recipients know from the beginning that they have to find work. They don’t need added restrictions. They need education and job-training and skilled job placement support. There is a strong correlation between education and welfare outcomes. Eighty-five percent of Massachusetts welfare recipients have less than a high school diploma. Research shows that those who leave welfare with a higher level of education are likely to find jobs that pay well and are less likely to return to welfare.
There is a desperate need, in concert with this legislation, to expand adult basic education and GED programs, career-focused job-training initiatives, the English for Speakers of Other Languages program and college tuition support. What if Massachusetts launched an initiative to help every welfare recipient achieve an educational/career goal? Completion of GED, certification via trade school, enrollment in college all lead to sustainable careers.
In addition, financial literacy programs and asset-building education would further enhance their ability to lead independent, self-fulfilling lives.
Access to quality child care is critical. On June 11 it was reported that 55,000 Massachusetts families were on the waiting list for subsidized child care. Recent sequestration budget cuts have further reduced openings in Head Start and other child care programs. Without quality child care, parents can’t work. All the job searches in the world won’t result in successful employment. This must be a priority.
Sadly, in this legislation, the much-needed focus on jobs is drowned out by a litany of restrictions that do little but add to the indignity of being poor. Advocates and legislators worked tirelessly during the three-day House and Senate debate process, submitting amendments to offset the harshest requirements. For example, original legislation requiring applicants to do a job search before they get benefits, and perhaps before they are allowed to apply, has been modified.
We must remember that welfare was created to care for poor children struggling to survive in dire circumstances. By far the largest percentage of welfare recipients in Massachusetts are children. In 2010, there were 103,000 welfare recipients in 50,000 families; 83,000 or 81 percent of them were children. Of those children, 38,000 were under 5.
The average monthly welfare benefit is $456. No one can live on that benefit. No one wants to stay on welfare.
Forcing parents to jump through hoops so their children’s basic needs can be met is humiliating and dangerous. A woman eight months pregnant should not be forced to work when her job requirements might have a negative impact on her and her baby. A 65-year-old grandmother with custody of her grandchildren should not be required to work. What is gained by pushing our most fragile residents off the program for a few months?
We understand that legislative reform for this entitlement program was prompted by reports from the state auditor and inspector general that highlighted both real and exaggerated deficiencies at the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance. New requirements include weekly job search, photo ID EBT cards and loss of benefits if out of state for 30 days. A particularly onerous rule limits work exemptions for pregnant mothers to one month before birth (currently it is 4 months). In addition the age limit for the work requirement is increased from 60 to 66 years. (With so many grandparents caring for their grandchildren, this could create new hardships.)
There are many more restrictions. Most serve to dehumanize recipients with little savings for taxpayers in a classic exercise of blaming the victim.
Yes, let’s weed out the fraud! Anyone cheating the system should be identified. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Don’t lose sight of the painful reality faced by the majority of welfare recipients. Where is our concern, our empathy?
Poor families need and deserve the opportunity to learn skills, gain educational credentials and build assets. A focus on the positive, on lifting up lives through education, compassion and support, will reduce poverty while it lowers costs to tax-payers.John J. Drew is president/CEO of Action for Boston Community Development, a Boston-area anti-poverty and community action organization.