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Do Welfare Deadlines Work?

In the nation's first evaluation of time limits for people on welfare, researchers found that a looming deadline did little to encourage recipients to move off the rolls more quickly on their own.

The study of a program in Pensacola, Fla., also found that by the time they were kicked off welfare, only about half of welfare recipients had found a job.

For most of the nation's history, cash assistance was available as long as needed to anyone poor enough to qualify. But in 1996, Pensacola became the first place to remove people from the rolls because they had hit a time limit.

Today, welfare recipients across the country face a five-year time limit imposed by the 1996 federal welfare overhaul law. Many states impose shorter limits. Florida's is two years for most welfare recipients.

The Florida report, released Monday by Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., offered a look into the future but did not measure conclusively how people forced from the rolls are faring.

Florida officials and other supporters of time limits noted that the study found no horror stories. But the limits also didn't produce the positive effect of getting people to move off the rolls voluntarily.

The program began in 1994 in Pensacola, near the Alabama border. The first participants reached their time limit in 1996.

In fact, only 11 percent of the Pensacola families actually hit the limit after two years because, like families nationwide, they came on and off the welfare rolls as their circumstances changed.

Time limits might have a greater effect on future recipients, who will see that officials are serious about enforcing them, researchers said.

And they noted that caseworkers did not pressure recipients to leave welfare earlier, suggesting that they use their time to get education and training rather than bank it for the future.

Time limits aside, the program also offered welfare recipients special services, such as more personal attention from caseworkers and enhanced child care, and it let them keep more of the money they earned while on welfare. It succeeded in increasing the number of people who combined work with welfare.

Two years into the program, 52 percent of the people subject to the new rules were working, compared with 44 percent in the traditional program. People in the experiment were also more likely to find full-time jobs and jobs with benefits.

Significantly, the two-year time limit applied only to recipients deemed most likely to find work. Others facing tougher challenges got three years. They hadn't hit the time limit in time to be studied.

"That's the group you really want information about before you draw conclusions," said MDRC's Dan Bloom.

The MDRC report found that after two years, 102 people out of a possible 919 had hit the time limit.

While state officials had considerable latitude in dealing with them, almost all lost their benefis immediately or after a brief extension.

Half were already earning more than their welfare grant. The half that were not had their cases closed only after a community panel reviewed them.

Six months later, about 75 percent were working. The others were living with relatives and-or relying on other public assistance, such as food stamps.

"Nobody's desperate now, but over time will that hold?" asked Jack Tweedie, who tracks welfare policy for the National Conference of State Legislators. "Most people can make do for a little while."

Written by Laura Meckler
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