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Welfare on Decline

September 11, 1998

By: Pervaiz Shallwani

State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - On the surface, the "federal welfare reform bill" has paid off for Missouri -- the number of welfare recipients has dropped 45 percent.

But while the state is happy with the decline, the question of what is happening to these people is not sitting well with advocacy groups such as the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, who have said the numbers the state is presenting do not show the true state of people on and leaving welfare.

"It's a body count. It's like Vietnam," said Peter DeSimone, the executive director for MASW.

A recent state report shows that from January 1993 to July 1998, the number of people on welfare in Missouri has gone down from 259,039 to 142,314 at the state level -- a 45 percent decline. In Boone County, the state figures show a 42 percent decline -- from 3,964 cases to 2,297.

"Our estimation is that the state is implementing welfare a little more harshly than it was intended," DeSimone said. He said one of the reasons for this is because the state has yet to pass it's own form of legislation for welfare, which was granted by the federal law. The reason, he said, is because the Social Services Department wants to show the public that the numbers of people on welfare are down.

A survey done of food shelters across the state in 1997 revealed that "tons of people are relying on food shelters for food supplies," DeSimone said. He said the main reason for this is because the majority of the people are being pushed off welfare into low-wage jobs.

"They're not only moving from welfare to work, but welfare to charity," DeSimone said.

A study done at the University of Missouri-Kansas City concluded that of the people that have left welfare, most would have done so with or without the new program, DeSimone said. He said the program has only helped about 10 percent of those who have left welfare.

These conclusions have led advocacy groups to put pressure on the state, DeSimone said.

In response, the Social Services Department is conducting a statewide study to see where people who leave welfare are going, Stangler said. He said one of the factors in keeping people off welfare has been the services the federal welfare reorganization has provided.

"What I think we'll find is that child care has been a major factor, and the expansion of Medicaid has helped," Stangler said. "I think the reason people were going on welfare is because of their children and the need for child care."

In Columbia, Sheryl Smith is one person who has been fortunate to get off welfare and stay off.

After being in the system for 14 years, Smith, 35, is no longer dependent on monthly government assistance.

Starting June 8, after taking a one-year program in office technology offered by the career center at the Social Services office in Columbia, Smith was hired at the Columbia branch of the welfare agency as a Breast and Cervical Cancer Control Project Outreach Worker.

Three months later, she is moving on, ready to start a job at Shelter Insurance, 1817 W. Broadway, as a new business clerk -- imputing data, filing papers and performing other clerical duties.

"Now I can depend on my wages instead of the government assisting me," she said. "I have always bought used things -- that is not a bad thing -- but it is a awesome feeling to be able to buy new things. I bought my first ever new television.

"I feel like now, since I have permanent employment, I can start accomplishing the goals I have always wanted to for my family. My next goal is to get a house."

But Smith considers herself one of the lucky ones. Healthy, and with her three children now in school, she says the time was right for her.

With the federal welfare law restricting the time you can be on welfare to no more than two years before you have to find work and a total of five years, Smith says this will be problem for some people.

"I would still say it's is pretty hard (for mothers who have young children)," Smith said about the new program. "It's about you as a person. The system can help you if you want help. I have told people about the program, about going back to school, but they don't want to go back to school."

"You can force them off of it and make them homeless and off food," she said. "But if they don't have the support, then they are still going to be out there."

DeSimone says these are the people that the state should be helping and it is not.

"They don't take into account, that by creating systems, they are hurting the people they are trying to help," he said.

Stangler says figuring out how to help those people who lack the will to get off welfare is the next step in helping those on welfare.

"The next step is getting to those who have tougher barriers to overcome, like those with drug problems or disabilities," Stangler said, adding that "many of them have never worked before, and never seen anybody work before. They have a hard time holding down a job, because the usually don't know that they have to go into work on time, or how to deal with the coworkers."

Stangler said the states will have to address this problem when the bill comes back before Congress for renewal in 2002. He said it will probably become a priority after the presidential election in 2000.

Another concern addressed in the federal law is the potential for welfare recipients to jump from state to state in order to evade the five-year lifetime ban on welfare. The federal law requires the states to establish a national tracking system, but the law provides no guidance on how the system would operate.

Stangler said up to this point, the states have not done much to combat the problem.

"I have always thought that was a overblown problem," he said. "There has never been any indication of a migration from Missouri to Kansas or Illinois, where the benefits are higher."

But, Stangler said the states are working on a nationwide computer system to track welfare recipients.

With the decline in the number of people on welfare, the state has a surplus in funds. The money has been put back into other areas, Stangler said.

"The money is being reallocated into child care, Medicaid and education," he said. "The governor allocated $32 million of the money saved from welfare back into Missouri schools."