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JUNE 30, 1998
10:07 AM
CONTACT:  21st Century League
Graham S. Finney

Estimated 40,000 Philadelphia Families at Risk of Losing Welfare Payments In Nine Months, Civic Group Reports
PHILADELPHIA - June 30 - An extensive report by the 21st Century League, an independent civic group, found that as many as 40,000 of Philadelphia's poorest families risk losing their current cash assistance in nine months.

As a result of ``welfare reform,'' starting in March of 1999, all those welfare recipients who have been in the system for 24 months must work 20 hours a week, or lose their benefits. Over the past 15 months, Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare (DPW) has attempted to implement a welfare-to-work strategy to move recipients into the workforce. While basic administrative systems are now in place, and the message that welfare has been changed has been widely disseminated, the League's study finds that as many as two-thirds of Philadelphia's remaining welfare recipients find themselves at risk of losing cash assistance for both themselves and their families.

Graham S. Finney, President of the 2lst Century League, explained the report by saying, ``The League commissioned this hard look at the new welfare system in order to increase public understanding of a massive change and its likely impact on tens of thousands of Philadelphia area citizens. Where possible, we hope to highlight whatever isn't working so that those responsible can make the appropriate mid-course corrections.''

He added a warning: ``If the findings of this report are not addressed, then all sectors of this already hard-pressed city will be forced to deal with the consequences. That includes the public sector, the business and religious communities, community-based groups, and many more. Much needs to be done in a very short time.''

Like every other state in the nation, Pennsylvania finds itself responsible for implementing a new welfare system under the rules of the new federal block grant system. Under the requirements of the Transitional Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grant, Pennsylvania must make sure that welfare recipients find work within 24 months and leave welfare within 60 months. Pennsylvania's first deadline will arrive next March.

To meet TANF's demands, Pennsylvania enacted its own welfare law, Act 35, whose work requirements and deadlines mirror those of the federal law. The state seeks to put recipients on a ``pathway to self-sufficiency'' by getting them into the workforce quickly and then supporting them as they climb the wage ladder. Pennsylvania reports many successes in its first year, including the placement of almost 73,000 welfare recipients in jobs (19,300 in Philadelphia).

However, the League study found an overwhelming consensus throughout the welfare system that some two-thirds of Philadelphia's current caseload are at risk of losing their assistance come next March, and that the state's first- year welfare-to-work efforts were not sufficient to address their needs.

The League study, done with the full cooperation of DPW, was conducted by Janet E. Raffel, a consultant experienced in urban issues. Its findings are based on extensive interviews with DPW policymakers and front-line staff, all available DPW data, nine focus groups of welfare recipients, and interviews with more than 125 stakeholders in all areas affected by the welfare changes. The research concentrated on Philadelphia, home to some 47 percent of the state's welfare population, but also examined the experiences of Chester and Delaware counties.

Among the report's findings, Raffel said, was that virtually everyone agrees on the basic goals of the new welfare laws, which stress self- sufficiency as the antidote to public dependency. ``Overwhelmingly, the welfare recipients that we interviewed wanted to comply with the law and find jobs,'' said Raffel. ``They want to be self-sufficient, and their caseworkers and many others want to help them.

``However,'' she added, ``there was a lot of confusion and concern about how these laws are being implemented, and a general feeling that the resources that have been provided to do the job have been inadequate.''

Among the report's major findings:

Pennsylvania's decision to turn the 24- and 60-month ``clocks'' on for all recipients on March 3, 1997, means that nearly everyone still in the system will hit the first deadline at the same time.
In Philadelphia, the new system was initially plagued by confusion at every level over rules, allowable activities, and requirements. Local welfare offices were overwhelmed with new administrative tasks, and many caseworkers reported that they are unable to perform their new tasks adequately. Particular confusion surrounded the distribution of critical child-care and transportation benefits, and the allowability of education activities.   DPW chose to create 80 percent of its program slots in ``quick attachment'' job-search programs, but provided only enough slots for about a quarter of its Philadelphia caseload. Some additional slots were created for those who couldn't find work through quick attachment, but most of those were in a program criticized by DPW and others as being inadequate to serve the needs of the hard-to-employ.

DPW's present data systems are inadequate to demonstrate anything more than very basic information about the caseload, and make it very difficult to analyze the results of the first year
policies. They can report how many people found jobs, for example, but not how long they keep them or what they earn. Furthermore, while DPW has not assessed its caseload for employability, it is operating on the assumption that those who remain on the welfare rolls will be harder to employ than those already gone or working.

Observers throughout the system believe that almost half of the caseload is doing nothing to respond to the laws' new demands, but the lack of data make it impossible to determine whether this is due to ``denial'' or deeper problems of literacy, drug abuse, language barriers, or other problems.

``The state's attempt to quickly place work-ready recipients in immediately available jobs worked for some, especially in today's good economy, but not the majority of the caseload,'' said Raffel of her findings. ``Those who are not ready to work without considerable additional assistance had little to lean on, but they face the deadline just like everybody else.'' She added that most of the recipients interviewed faced problems with services such as child care and transportation that make employment possible.

While many new programs remain in the planning stages, including the city's Greater Philadelphia Works plan funded by the new federal welfare-to- work funds, the report suggests that they will not be ready to serve many clients in time to help them avoid the March deadline.

The report makes a number of suggestions for immediate and long-term action, based on the first year's experience, including:

Make an effective analysis of the characteristics of the remaining caseload, and share the results with Greater Philadelphia leaders from all sectors, in order to assure the best possible investment of scarce resources;  Improve data systems, case management capacities and client referral systems so that all clients get the best possible assistance during their stay on the welfare rolls;  Rectify initially inconsistent administration of benefits to clients, particularly child care and other allowances, and expand efforts to deal with such vexing problems as literacy, drug abuse, domestic violence, and long-term job retention;  Develop a comprehensive regional plan that mobilizes all necessary community partners, and which is based on a realistic assessment of the problems faced by the region and its residents as the new deadlines new laws.

``This report took a hard look at the towering hurdles facing one major city as it tries to comply with the new welfare laws' goal of moving tens of thousands of hard-pressed families to self-sufficiency,'' said Finney. ``This cannot be simply about cutting welfare rolls, because that in turn creates new problems for local communities and their governments. Pennsylvania and the federal government have established time limits and work requirements, but what we found is a major gap in the state's short-term capacity to implement them effectively in a big, old city like Philadelphia.

``The problem faced by this place is the same one that other cities like it will face in the years to come,'' he concluded.


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