Welfare reform 15 years on in Illinois

Welfare reform 15 years on in Illinois

"Today we are ending welfare as we know it. But I hope this day will be remembered not for what it ended but for what it began." So said then-President Bill Clinton 15 years ago this Monday when he signed legislation that replaced Aid to Dependent Families with Children with the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program.

The policy shift was fundamental. Welfare was finished as a guaranteed entitlement program; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, placed new time limits on how long adults could receive cash benefits and required beneficiaries to seek and train for work. Clinton's bill shifted the federal funding mechanism for welfare to a block grant and allowed states more latitude in how they designed cash assistance programs.

Fifteen years on, what has welfare reform meant in Illinois?

Here are three data points, accompanied by some discussion, that start to tell the story.

First, the number of poor families in Illinois who receive TANF cash benefits is a fraction of the total population of people in poverty across the state.

Only 9 percent of poor families in Illinois received TANF cash benefits in 2009, one of the lowest ratios in the country (methods note: not all poor families in the state are eligible for TANF benefits). A map compiled by the Urban Institute for a recent analysis puts Illinois' rate in national context:

The Urban Institute's Shelia Zedlewski said Illinois is one of that states that use various administrative efforts to divert people from enrolling in the TANF program. States with such rules tend to have lower caseloads, she told The Chicago Reporter.

Dan Lesser, who follows welfare issues for the Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, said Illinois saw "pretty aggressive case cutting" in TANF caseloads during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

"Illinois was one of the leaders, as it turned out, but there were substantial reductions everywhere" in caseloads, he said.

"In various ways, people were discouraged from being on TANF," Lesser said. He recalled that administrators scheduled frequent meetings for recipients and treated them as a mandatory activity. If you missed a session, Lesser said, that triggered a re-determination of benefit eligibility, resulting in lower caseloads.

Current TANF administrators, according to Lesser, take a different tone. "I think the message that has come from the top has been positive. I think there's a real effort to make the program fair to people and make the activities worthwhile," he said. Lesser did say, however, that budget cuts hitting programs and providers that work with welfare recipients are a concern.

Second, the Illinois families that are using TANF cash assistance are finding that the help isn't going as far as it used to. The maximum benefit for a poor family of three in most of the state, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, is now $432 per month or $5,184 per year. That's a loss of about 18 percent in real dollars, versus 1996.

The center looked at the changes in the value of cash assistance between 1996 and 2010 in a report published in October. Here's part of a chart published in that report, with the real-value decline of Illinois' benefit level highlighted at the bottom:

Finally, while the number of TANF caseloads in Illinois have risen since the start of the recession. But the growth rate of the unemployed in the state has risen much faster.

The following data is part of a chart in the Urban Institute's recent welfare report (PDF). Again, Illinois' trend highlighted at the bottom. Take a look:

Nationwide, according to the Urban Institute, the TANF caseload increased by 14 percent between 2007 and 2010, while the unemployment rate has jumped 88 percent during that time.

Though more people have sought out food stamps and unemployment insurance to get by in recent years, TANF hasn't been much of a support during this recession, in other words. Recall that when President Clinton signed the reform bill in 1996, the economy was booming, and job opportunities were plentiful, even for the poor women who had traditionally used welfare.

"The TANF program is overdue for a serious review of its effectiveness during economic downturns," the Urban Institute report says. "TANF has a strong work message that has functioned well during periods when jobs are available; it should have a countercyclical component as well."

"I think it really bears watching over the next year," the Urban Institute's Zedlewski told the Reporter. "What do we do when people don't have unemployment insurance and don't have any cash benefits and are trying to get by on [food stamps]?"

TANF will be up for Congressional re-authorization again this fall, but Zedlewski does not believe a substantial overhaul is forthcoming. The program has not seen major changes for years, though it did receive a one-time $5 billion boost through the 2009 stimulus bill--dollars that paid for programs like the now-terminated Put Illinois To Work, which subsidized jobs for welfare recipients at private, public and nonprofit employers.

"I think it's a tough topic to take on" for Congress, Zedlewski said. "There's just a visceral reaction among many people that welfare is a bad thing."

Photo courtesy of the World Economic Forum.

© Community Renewal Society 2011

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