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WASHINGTON LETTER Jul-28-2006 (920 words) Backgrounder and analysis. With graphic posted July 28 and photo to come. xxxn

Welfare 10 years later: Stats may look good, but poverty continues

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Ten years after the nation's welfare system was reorganized, with new work requirements and built-in cutoff triggers for recipients, evaluating how well it has worked is a classic Washington numbers game.

For some, there has been spectacular success with the 1996 legislation that did away with even the word welfare -- rechristening the program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. They cite decreases in the number of people receiving assistance, fewer children living in poverty and a slowed rate of out-of-wedlock births.

Other people point out that while there may be fewer people with incomes below the federal poverty level than there were in the mid-1990s, the number in "deep poverty" has climbed by 750,000 and overall poverty has been growing again since 2000. Strict rules and obstacles such as an inability to get into agency offices during business hours mean that fewer than half the people eligible for TANF participate.

Candy Hill, senior vice president for social policy for Catholic Charities USA, attended a July 19 hearing on TANF before the House Ways and Means Committee and said that "part of my frustration is that there's a whole lot of data (about the effects of welfare reform) that could be massaged in either direction."

Hill added that she was "astounded by the presentation (at the hearing) that this was a huge success for poor people. That was not based in the reality of what it is to be a poor person in this country."

As a representative of the social services agencies that provide assistance to families who make up the statistics about welfare reform, Hill said she's disheartened that "no one is looking at it from the perspectives of the participants -- or the nonparticipants -- and the impact on them."

In testimony for the hearing, Robert Rector, senior research fellow for the Heritage Foundation, rattled off statistics that make TANF look like a raging success:

-- 1.6 million fewer children live in poverty today than in 1995.

-- The poverty rate among black children fell from 41.5 percent in 1995 to 32.9 percent in 2004.

-- Nationwide, those receiving welfare dropped from 4.3 million families when the bill was enacted to 1.9 million today.

-- The rate at which out-of-wedlock births increased slowed for the first time since the 1960s. While about one-third of all births in the country are to unmarried women, the rate of increase slowed overall after 1996 and actually fell slightly for black women in 2003, from 69.9 percent to 68.2 percent.

At the same hearing, Sharon Parrott, director of welfare reform and income support policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, presented the effects of welfare reform with a less cheery cast.

Although the number of people in the welfare system began dropping even before TANF provisions took effect, Parrott said, "between 2000 and 2004, the number of children living in families with cash incomes below half of the poverty line increased by 758,000, while the number receiving assistance through TANF or (other) programs fell by 509,000. In other words, at a time of rising need, states' TANF programs were assisting fewer children."

In 2006 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' poverty guideline for a family unit of three, including two children, was an annual income of $16,600.

Parrott acknowledged that employment rates for single mothers rose from 62 percent in 1995 to 73 percent in 2000. Since that year, however, they fell again, to 69 percent in 2005.

Child poverty and poverty overall also have grown since 2000, after initially declining in the mid-1990s, she said. According to the Census Bureau's definition, the rate for children in poverty was 23 percent in 1993, 16 percent in 2000, and 18 percent in 2004, the last year for which figures were available.

Hill told Catholic News Service that the 1,700 Catholic Charities member agencies have seen a dramatic increase in the number of families who need aid. Since 1999, there has never been an annual decline in the number of people seeking aid, she said.

Between 2003 and 2004 alone, Catholic Charities agencies reported a 14 percent increase in the number of requests for help with housing, food, clothing and other essentials, according to Hill. Catholic Charities attributes the increase to a combination of the high cost of living, inadequate minimum wages, lack of affordable health insurance and too little affordable housing.

"So even people who are working are not making enough for their basic needs," she said.

Kathleen Curran, interim director of the Office of Domestic Social Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the anniversary reports tell a mixed story.

"You really have to look beyond the statistics," she said. "You can get into a 'food fight' over whose numbers tell you what, and then you have to factor in what the economy was doing and so on.

"But we have to step back and say, to the extent that welfare changes affirmed the value of work, that's a good thing," she continued. "Caseloads are down, and if you know that's because people are working and supporting themselves, that's great. But there are others, we don't know what happened to them and that's scary."

The question should not be "what happened," Curran said, but "how can we continue to support work for everyone at wages and benefits that allow them to support their families."


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