Welfare clock ticks

Will people on welfare actually be kicked off?

“I’M TRYING NOT to think about it,” says Cynthia Jackson. The Bellevue single mother of two has two years until she’s slated to be kicked off welfare by the new five-year limit on benefits. She says her caseworkers are trying “to push me out of the program.” She might be able to get a full-time job at Bellevue Community College, where she currently works half time in an administrative job through a subsidized program for welfare recipients. But, against the advice of her caseworkers, she wants to finish a year-and-a-half program to become a counselor before looking for a job in that field. Plus she wants to wait until her 6- and 8-year-old children are a little older before consigning them to after-school day care.

So she’s taking a gamble and letting her welfare clock tick on. “I’m hoping that I’ll be employable by the time my benefits run out,” she says.

This week marks the four-year anniversary of welfare reform in Washington state, a date that has big implications for thousands of people like Jackson. Some 3,300 welfare recipients now have even less time than Jackson—only one year left—before being kicked off welfare because of the new lifetime five-year limit on benefits. And every month after August 1, 2002, a new deadline looms for another group of welfare recipients.

But it turns out that these deadlines, hailed as revolutionary by some and draconian by others, are not necessarily firm. Even though federal law mandates the five-year limit, Washington state could give an exemption to every single person facing the first deadline, and plenty more besides. That’s because federal law allows states to exempt up to 20 percent of their overall caseload from the five-year limit. In this state, the 3,300 people facing the first cutoff represent but a fraction of the 11,000 people that could be exempted.

Against this backdrop, a new debate on time limits is expected in Congress this fall as it considers reauthorizing the welfare reform law. “States can, to a significant degree, sidestep the five-year time limit, so some in Congress are going to argue that we need to tighten it up,” predicts Ken Miller, Gov. Gary Locke’s top welfare advisor. “Some think the states have been too tough. It’s going to be debated on both the right and the left.” A similar debate is sure to take place in the state Legislature next year.

In the meantime, the Department of Social and Health Services and three other agencies that implement the state’s welfare program are drawing up drafts of an exemption policy, the latest of which circulated last month. There is no suggestion in it of a blanket exemption for everyone still on welfare. “The time limit is an incentive. That’s what it was created for,” says Kathy Davis, another member of the governor’s welfare staff.

Instead of a blanket exemption, the draft outlines three- to 12-month extensions for an array of people, including those who are disabled or taking care of disabled children, victims of domestic violence, the mentally ill, the drug addicted, the homeless, or those making a good faith effort to find a job. The governor, through DSHS, has the final say over whom to exempt.

Will such short extensions be enough for some of the severely troubled people who now constitute welfare’s long-timers? John Leonard, administrator of the Capitol Hill welfare office that covers a central swath of the city, is dubious. He and his staff point out that some of their clients have received welfare not only for the duration of welfare reform, but for maybe 14 years before that. “I don’t know if there’s enough creativity in the world [to find jobs] for some of our customers,” Leonard says, “and you’re talking to a kid who’s been around [the welfare system] for 33 years. These are some tough ones.”

Leonard cites an older woman who’s taking care of her grandkids and who has mental health problems she doesn’t want to recognize. The woman says she can work but doesn’t, nor does she want to apply for federal benefits for the disabled.

Jean Colman, executive director of the Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition, recalls another difficult case: a single mom in Yakima who’s working full time but still doesn’t earn enough to support her 11 children. “She may never get off welfare,” Colman says.

The state is not completely adverse to that concept. While local welfare offices have not been briefed on possible permanent exemptions, welfare honcho Ken Miller says they are being discussed, particularly in the context of the disabled and those taking care of disabled children. He says frankly, “The question has to be asked whether there should be time limits at all for certain groups.”