Safety net gains 

Advocates seek creative options for welfare reform

Last year Erica Crawford and her husband were raising their infant daughter and watching every penny to get by. The Wolf Point woman worked as a school aide and her husband had a full-time job. They were making ends meet, but when they got custody of Crawford’s 14-year-old brother-in-law, it opened up a whole new set of expenses. They were faced with a dilemma of how to bring enough money into their house while caring for their baby.

The Crawfords found a solution in the At-Home Infant Care program. They became one of approximately 40 families a month who receive a cash stipend to stay at home and raise their baby rather than receiving traditional welfare assistance. It is a program that many cite as typical of Montana’s creative approach to welfare policy. With the 1996 federal welfare reform bill up for reauthorization this year, Montana’s welfare service providers, advocates, officials, and recipients all are hoping that Congress will turn out a bill that maintains the state’s flexibility to come up with and expand these innovative programs. They also stress how complex welfare situations are, and how important it is for policies to reflect the myriad issues that go into them, child care foremost among them.

“It made me feel like I’m bringing something into this house, too,” Crawford says of the $378 a month the family receives from the program, which mandates that she work with a local social service agency to develop an educational program for her child.

The program originated with the Missoula-based non-profit, Working for Equality and Economic Liberation (WEEL). The idea came from WEEL’s own members, who are primarily low-income women. Although organizers expected wage issues to be their top priority, members stressed the need for a program that acknowledges that early childhood care is work. Organizers researched the idea and found a similar program in Minnesota. They then took the idea to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), which implemented it in December, 2001.

“I think it’s controversial because it seems to run counter to the purposes of welfare reform, which is that it doesn’t encourage employment or turn people toward the work force, but it addresses child care needs and is one more option for people to look at,” says Hank Hudson, human and community services division administrator for DPHHS. “That’s the theme we’ve been saying to our delegation. We need a lot of flexibility because every family’s different.”

Through WEEL’s advocacy, a version of the At-Home Infant Program was included in the welfare reauthorization bill that passed the Senate Finance Committee in late June. Montana groups were able to exert sway via Sen. Max Baucus (D–Mont.), who, as chairman of the finance committee, is very influential in shaping welfare policy. However, the final fate of the bill remains uncertain, as a partisan standoff looks likely in the Senate. Even if the Senate bill passes, it still must be reconciled with a rather different House bill. One of the main points of division so far has been child care funding, which has gone up but not by enough, according to some in the Senate, including Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D–S.D.).

“This bill is not perfect,” Baucus said in a statement. “But I believe it reflects a reasonable middle ground among many competing perspectives.” Baucus added that “as Finance Committee chairman I’ll make sure that any welfare reform we pass is right for Montana.”

State officials, service providers, and welfare advocates alike agree that the bill would be a benefit for Montana, but there is disagreement on how helpful it would be. One key question in the debate has been how to take economic instability into account when setting policy. In the years following the enactment of welfare reform in 1996, welfare rolls dropped sharply, but that was in the backdrop of a booming economy where jobs were plentiful. Most comprehensive studies of the effects of welfare reform predate the economic downturn of the last few years.

“One of the best ways to recession-proof this population is to increase their skills and their employability, and we can do that through additional training and education,” Hudson says.

The reauthorization bill addresses this mainly through extending a waiver system to states like Montana by allowing states to exempt welfare recipients from federal work requirements if they are engaged in activities like education or child care which ultimately lead to more sustainable work. The Bush Administration wants to end those waivers.

New provisions on education and training are “huge strides towards recognizing that poverty is much more complicated, and we need to give people the education and skills so they can move out of poverty,” says WEEL Executive Director Kate Kahan.

The bill that passed the finance committee left intact the 60-month lifetime limit for welfare benefits, and kept the required work week of 30–35 hours the same (the Bush Administration wanted it raised to 40). Tribal governments will get help improving their public assistance infrastructure, benefits are restored to legal immigrants which were taken away in 1996, and $200 million a year are put into marriage promotion programs. Local service providers are split over how much the aid will help.

“I think they’ve cut everything down to the bare bones anyway, and I just don’t think it will have a positive effect,” says Wendy Welch, director of social services for the Salvation Army. She has seen an increase in people using her organization’s services in recent years, as has Bonnie Buckingham, program operations manager of the Missoula Food Bank.

“I think if they put more money into TANF and authorize additional funds into it that yes, we would see a decrease in the amount of people who use the Food Bank,” she says. However, Buckingham cautions that it depends on the economy.

Sue Brown, assistant manager at the Job Service, is part of a state program to get welfare recipients jobs called the Work Readiness Component. There are some good points and some controversial aspects of the reauthorization bill (like marriage promotion), she says, but the important thing is to keep funding educational and training programs and to give states the flexibility to be creative with work requirements.

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