the quiet success
by Jennifer T. Daly
After years of heated rhetoric and bitter political battles, welfare reform swept the nation in 1997 with surprisingly little fanfare.
Soon after welfare-to-work programs were adopted, a handful of University of Georgia researchers began to study the impact of the transformation in Georgia.
What they found has turned many of even their own long-held convictions upside down.
There is very little data to support the fears of the critics,
even my own [fears], said Larry Nackerud, associate dean
of the UGA School of Social Work and co-principal director of the
Georgia Welfare Reform Research Project, a
I think I had a sort of standard liberal definition of poverty, what poverty was and what cash assistance should be like, Nackerud said. I was surprised that so many people embraced the concept of work. In all the interviews I did [with the welfare recipients], people werent complaining about this.
In fact, not only does Nackeruds research reveal the depth of the success of the welfare reform effort overall, but it also sheds light on why Georgia may have been especially successful in making the transition.
Broad Federal Guidelines
To underscore the dramatic shift, the cash assistance program was renamed Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF a permanent replacement for the familiar Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
Within the broad federal guidelines, state governments were given unprecedented freedom to choose how to implement this new concept in social welfare. Georgia was ahead of the game, having already instituted WorkFirst, which a year earlier had mandated the Division of Family and Childrens Services (DFCS) begin moving welfare recipients from cash assistance to work.
With the work requirement already embraced, Georgia established TANF with a 48-month lifetime limit for cash assistance benefits and mandated that welfare recipients adhere to a personal responsibility agreement, which includes having their children immunized and attending teacher/parent school conferences.
The results were dramatic: From January 1997 through February 2000, the number of families receiving cash assistance in Georgia dropped by more than half 53.8 percent, or nearly 62,000 families.
To evaluate the new program, DFCS turned to the University of Georgia. Nackerud, co-principal investigator Ed Risler and their colleagues in the UGA School of Social Work were selected to study the patterns arising from welfare reform in Georgia and assess its impact on welfare recipients. DFCS especially wanted to know what factors encouraged a successful transition from dependency to self-sufficiency. Across campus, Stephen Condrey and his colleagues in UGAs Carl Vinson Institute of Government began studying how DFCS, as an agency, responded to implementing such a far-reaching change in its policies and practices.
The results have been overwhelmingly positive, according to the researchers. Huge policy questions still remain, but there is no question that welfare reform is a success for the majority of recipients, Nackerud said.
In DFCS itself, Condrey found similar success. We had no vested interest to make positive findings, Condrey said. But we found that DFCS employees were very well-prepared to accept the challenge that welfare reform presented. Theyve done a good job and need to be congratulated.
These sweeping statements of success are grounded in carefully collected data. In 1998, Nackerud, Risler and their team interviewed more than 200 county-based DFCS directors and Family Connection directors who represented urban, suburban and rural areas of the state, as well as members of Georgia SAFETYNET, an advocacy group with concerns about welfare reform.
Meanwhile, with the help of doctoral student Michele Ross, Condrey mailed surveys to 156 Georgia county DFCS directors and 1,188 other DFCS employees, specifically targeting how welfare reform had impacted the agencys work environment. Condrey said he was pleased with the high return rate: 94 percent from directors; 80 percent from other employees.
The researchers also conducted thorough interviews separately with more than 200 welfare recipients across the state. (See related story here.)
We have established a data set that is a representative sample of people living in poverty in Georgia, Nackerud said. This will provide us with an opportunity to continue to track the social and economic impacts in their lives.
Chief among these was that welfare recipients didnt want to work. Not so, the researchers found.
During our interviews, we found that most people expressed a fundamental desire to take care of themselves, Risler said. Given a choice, most recipients in the study said they would rather go to work.
DFCS workers also found this to be true. In his study, Condrey found that those who worked with welfare recipients during the transition noted a marked increase in recipients personal responsibility, self-sufficiency, motivation to work and self-respect. In some clients who we never thought would go to work, we have seen tremendous positive changes, one respondent said.
Another stereotype put to rest in the study, researchers said, was of widespread fraud and abuse. With most TANF recipients receiving only $201 to $300 a month in cash assistance and their total monthly income averaging just over $1,000 the average welfare recipient is hardly getting rich off welfare, Nackerud said.
We found that 97 percent of TANF recipients are women who fall below the poverty line, and that is not a powerful group, but there are a lot of politics, he said. Its an issue that causes a great deal of debate irrespective of the interests or beliefs of the individuals receiving cash assistance.
Nackerud and Risler dispelled two common myths about welfare recipients: They do not, on average, have large numbers of children nor are women having children to increase benefits. Of the women in the study, 68 percent reported only one or two children living in the home.
One preconceived notion about the welfare-to-work movement was that many welfare recipients were forced to move in order to find jobs. But this also proved untrue. Instead, more than half reported living in the same county where they were born.
Concerns that welfare reform would increase the incidence of child neglect, domestic violence, homelessness and crime were seemingly not borne out in the data either.
What remained true to stereotype is that more than half 60 percent of women on welfare had their first child between the ages of 17 and 24, nearly double the birthrate of the general population of Georgia women in this age group.
The researchers confirmed other commonly held perceptions about welfare recipients. Among the recipients researchers surveyed, nearly half 47 percent never finished high school or earned a GED. In the suburban group, 18 percent of TANF recipients in the survey dropped out of high school before the ninth grade.
The most common reasons for dropping out of school, across the board, were pregnancy or having to care for a child. Family problems, however, were also frequently cited in rural areas.
Researchers found that a gap in educational resources compounded the high dropout rates. In an age where computer skills are required in even the most basic jobs, a whopping 84 percent of TANF recipients in the study said that they did not have a computer in their home.
Those sobering statistics explain why DFCS workers reported lack of job-readiness skills and poor reading and math skills among the top five reasons why TANF recipients have trouble finding work.
But even with some long-held perceptions verified, the researchers continued to find exceptions.
However, these remain among the top reasons why DFCS workers in Condreys study reported 43,000 or so Georgians remain on TANF.
Indeed, one of the keys to Georgias success in moving TANF recipients to work is state-sponsored day care subsidies, which must be spent at a licensed child care facility, Nackerud said.
We found that the child care subsidy is powerful, he said. Nearly 90 percent of those who receive a subsidy have their child in licensed care; whereas only 27 percent of those who do not have a subsidy access licensed care.
And the subsidy is available to people who have moved off TANF as well.
Its a no-brainer to say if you are making six to seven bucks an hour, and child care costs $80 to $100 a week, that if you dont get a subsidy you are going to spend half your paycheck to have your kids in care. Thats a recipe for disaster, said Fred Brooks, an assistant social work professor at Georgia State University who wrote his dissertation on welfare reform while at UGA.
Brooks found that children in licensed care not only scored higher on school readiness tests, but also their own mothers scored them higher on maturity and behavior tests compared with TANF recipients who did not access the subsidy.
Job availability a key component of the programs success also was boosted by Georgias exceptionally strong economy and low unemployment rate.
I think we are very fortunate that this happened in flush economic times, Condrey said. I dont know if the result would have been the same if this same reform agenda had passed in 1991 or 1992.
Making It Work
In the past, the focus was to determine eligibility; now, they are job placement counselors, Condrey said. That was a big change for DFCS workers.
Even with this dramatic change in job priority, Condrey found little criticism among DFCS employees about the core need for a new direction. More than 90 percent described reform as a positive challenge and nearly the same number said their agency is committed to serving the full welfare recipient population, not just those who appear more job-ready.
Embracing the concept of moving people to work is one thing, but finding jobs for people in such large numbers is another. Yet nearly three-fourths of the respondents in Nackerud and Rislers survey said that private employers were moderately to very supportive of welfare reform. Two-thirds said their county had at least three program initiatives such as resume writing and interview skillscourses, and employment networks to help TANF recipients find work.
However, not all areas proved equal. In many rural areas, the majority of caseworkers interviewed described their countys job availability as insufficient or in seriously short supply.
In addition, Condreys survey found that even though DFCS employees viewed the change from welfare to work as positive, more than half expressed concern that rapid job placement was given more weight than finding a job that afforded future growth.
Condrey also found that having fewer people on welfare has not necessarily reduced DFCS employee workloads. Monitoring client personal responsibility plans and personal work plans more than made up the difference, respondents said.
Still, DFCS workers in the study expressed strong commitment to their work, with more than 96 percent agreeing that their job was meaningful and more than 92 percent noting they liked working for DFCS, Condrey said.
And the majority more than 95 percent said they had the necessary skills to help their clients move from welfare to work.
An Eventful Year
Clearly we are now getting down to those individuals who have significant barriers in their lives and who will have great difficulty becoming self-sufficient, Risler said.
How the state and the recipients themselves cope with the coming deadline will likely set the standard for future decisions.
I think some people dont understand, some people dont believe it, but the vast majority do. I think DFCS did a good job of informing people, Nackerud said. But there remain policy questions. If you are 25, poor, have two children and you use up your lifetime benefit, but find work, great. But then if you turn 29, and have a crisis in your life or the economy turns sour I think we have to answer that.
Nackerud said he believes that Georgia is clearly now in the forefront of making the new system work. Though real concerns remain about specific components of the complex welfare system, including the rising number of working poor, Georgia seems to have grasped a fundamental principle in moving recipients to the beginnings of self-sufficiency, he said.
If you give poor women three things educational opportunity, job opportunity and a nonoppressive environment the likelihood that their lives will improve is raised, he said. On the other hand, this country has shown that if you are a teen-ager and you get pregnant, youve got a 60 percent greater chance of getting on TANF in the next two years.
Still, its difficult to overstate Georgias success so far, Nackerud said. That our nation would move more than 50 percent of welfare recipients to work in less than four years, and that Georgia would do even better than that average no one predicted that.
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Jennifer T. Daly, an award-winning freelance writer based in Atlanta, regularly contributes to Research Reporter. She is a former staff member of the UGA research communications office and has a bachelors degree from the universitys Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.