by Jennifer T. Daly
With the four-year limit on welfare benefits fast approaching, state officials face tough questions regarding the people who remain on welfare rolls.
Federal law allows states to exempt up to 20 percent of welfare recipients from the limits on lifetime benefits. But who should be exempt still must be determined and social workers want to know what obstacles might impede the remainder from getting jobs.
To get a clearer picture of the problem, researchers from UGAs School of Social Work interviewed a random sample of more than 200 Georgia welfare recipients. The study included 77 people from urban counties, 45 from suburban counties, 53 from rural counties experiencing economic growth and 26 from counties in rural decline.
Welfare recipients across the state share many similarities. Among those receiving cash assistance through Georgias Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, about 97 percent of the recipients with children are women and 78 percent are African American. More than half the recipients in the study represented family cases, where both the adult and child received state benefits; in 45 percent, only the child received benefits. (The adults in the child-only cases are exempt from work requirements and lifetime limits of benefits.)
Adults who care for children who receive welfare benefits are typically aunts and grandmothers; on average, they are 14 years older than adult recipients in family cases. In child-only cases, 32 percent of the adults reported being married; only 4 percent of adults in family cases were married. Divorces and separations aside, a staggering 70 percent of single women in family cases reported never being married, compared with 29 percent in child-only cases.
Family cases typically represent younger, less-educated women, which increases their risk of remaining on TANF and eventually losing benefits. However, these are not the prime candidates who will be exempt from the new welfare policies, according to Larry Nackerud, co-principal director of the Georgia Welfare Reform Research Project.
Health is the primary indicator of whether a person will remain indefinitely on welfare, Nackerud said.
You can fill the whole category with people who have some physical or mental health problem, he said. Health problems reflect the strongest trend for staying on TANF.
The law allows a 20 percent maximum exemption; however, 29 percent of the study participants reported that they could not work at all because of health problems.
The study and others like it around the country also showed that health coverage is one of the more confusing aspects of welfare reform.
Welfare reform decoupled Medicaid and cash assistance, said Ed Risler, the other co-principal director of the research project. An unintended consequence of reform is that the number of children and adults who we know could qualify for Medicaid are not always on it. People are buying into the idea of not getting assistance, so they are not coming in and applying for Medicaid.
Most TANF recipients in the study reported using private doctors to meet their health care needs debunking the notion that welfare recipients used hospital emergency rooms for primary care.
Disturbing, though, is that nearly a third of the study recipients reported health problems in their children with asthma being among the chief complaints. Among adults, white TANF recipients reported a higher rate of health problems than African Americans did 61 percent versus 45 percent.
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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.