When President Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996 one of the new Welfare Reform regulations was a five-year lifetime limit on benefits. What this means is that a family on welfare has only five years to go to school, receive skills training and find a good paying job before being cut off of all financial assistance provided under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. In California, the clock started ticking in January 1998.
Along with the hoops that a family has to jump through to stay on welfare, a family also has a life to live. Besides just being poor, families must also contend with many extenuating and unexpected circumstances such as raising children, incapacitation of a loved one and the length of time it may take to go through a treatment program. All of this can be difficult to manage within a five-year time limit. Some states have developed contingency plans for families reaching their time limits.
Both Pennsylvania and New York have instituted “safety nets” to continue financial assistance with state funds. Washington, Kansas and Illinois have arranged for exemptions to their deadlines. California has no such plan. While the CalWORKS program plans to continue supplying Fast Passes to working adults and has compiled a minimal list of resources for families to use, it’s not much comfort to families who are struggling below the poverty level.
In California the deadline is quickly approaching for over 100,000 families who will reach their lifetime limits on December 31st. In San Francisco this means that 592 families with children will have their benefits reduced or cut off completely whether or not they have any other income to help them survive. More than 75 percent of families on the welfare rolls work, but they earn so little, on average only $1,000 a month, that they have continued to qualify for benefits to help them make ends meet.
One of the problems contributing to the poverty of these families is the push for welfare recipients to take the first job offered to them even if it only pays minimum wage. People are discouraged from enrolling in higher education programs which may take longer to graduate from but provide a better chance of landing a living-wage job. Another problem lies in the lack of quality childcare available to welfare participants. Waiting lists for daycare centers in the city can be months or years long leaving private childcare providers, which parents are often uncomfortable with, as the only option left for a parent who needs to work. Parents are forced to make a decision between feeling secure about who is caring for their children and complying with welfare provisions.
With recent budget cuts and a general lack of sufficient funding for many agencies that serve low-income people, the increase in clients that can be expected when families suddenly lose their subsidies will undoubtedly cause an even greater strain on service providers. Speculations on what may happen here in San Francisco include a general increase in poverty for former welfare recipients, an increase in homeless families who can no longer make their rent, increased difficulty in keeping families together that can result in more children involved with Child Protective Services.
With childcare subsidies good for only two years after leaving welfare, and with unsubsidized childcare costs becoming unmanageable, families will be faced with the dilemma of staying in jobs that do not provide enough income to pay rent, bills and childcare. Or they can quit their jobs to stay home and care for their children — which puts them right back at Square One.
The lack of affordable housing, living-wage jobs, childcare, and access to equitable education has severely impacted poor families in San Francisco and on a national level. Without a plan for families getting kicked off of assistance, California is assuring that the plight of the poor is not a priority. Until we engage in strategies to provide concrete solutions we continue to leave families out in the cold in their struggle with poverty.