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Welfare Reform?

Tennessee's Families First program is still a work in progress

by Patrick Thomas

Debbie Rich has 18 months to find a job or lose her welfare check.

When her case came due for its regular, six-month re-certification review this fall, she was enrolled in Tennessee's Families First welfare reform program which, unlike the now-abolished federal entitlement program, purports to have time limits. "About six years ago, Mom kicked me out of the house when I was pregnant," she recalls, smiling because she and her mother are reconciled now. Off and on welfare for most of her adult life, she is the mother of a 6-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son--a textbook case. She has no car--not even a telephone.

Her monthly cash stipend is small--only $185 a month, the maximum for a family of three in Tennessee. Under the reform plan, if she were to have another child, the amount would not increase. Tennessee has always been stingy with cash allotments, among the bottom five states, but there are other benefits worth far more. Knoxville's Community Development Corporation (KCDC), through a federal pass-through subsidy called Section 8, pays the $450 rent for Debbie Rich's small house on Martin Luther King Boulevard. The utilities are subsidized--she paid eight dollars for them in November. She also collects $299 a month in food stamps. And then, of course, there is free TennCare medical coverage.

Until last summer, all these benefits would have been extended indefinitely to Rich and 93,000 other Tennesseans. Under Families First, welfare clients are being transformed into "customers," and more than 2,000 Department of Human Services eligibility counselors have been re-trained as case managers, whose goal is to get people off the rolls and into the workforce. To remain eligible for cash assistance, the "customer" must sign an individualized Personal Responsibility Plan--a PRP--which requires up to 40 hours of classes, employment searching, or assigned work each week until the applicants get a real job. To support their efforts, Families First also pays for child care and transportation. Moreover, their benefits will no longer get cut off all at once when they get a job. Instead, for 18 months, the state will provide "transitional benefits" including a rent freeze in public housing, continued food stamps, child care vouchers on a sliding scale, and TennCare coverage.

After 18 months, if the recipient has failed to find employment, the cash payments stop for at least three months--unless one of the numerous exceptions kicks in. Time limits are the most important change that Families First supposedly brings to welfare reform. There is a five year lifetime cap on benefits, but here too there is enough latitude for exceptions that it remains to be seen whether any family with small children will actually be cut off. Indeed, the prospects for the entire program at this stage can be summed up as a "wait and see" proposition.

To keep her $185 stipend, Rich has been attending mandatory life skills classes on parenting, nutrition, financial planning, etc., and then practical job hunting. A local agency has a contract with the state to conduct this four-week course, called Fresh Start. All across Tennessee, the state Department of Human Services has subcontracted various Families First programs to local, non-profit and quasi-public organizations such as this one, Child and Family Inc., which gets funding from the city, the county, United Way, the Gerber Foundation, and other private donors.

Faith Tapp teaches the job search class which Rich attends. After two weeks together, the women in the program have bonded and their discussions are lively. This morning, Tapp goes through a list of the top 10 jobs her pupils can pursue in the city, explaining the pros and cons. The occupation of corrections officer comes up, and one of the women wisecracks about having the opportunity to hunt down child support violators. This draws loud laughter--it's an inside joke, because many women find themselves on welfare because of fathers who won't pay child support. But Tapp says soberly that there actually are such positions, and there is a more practical consideration, to wit: "You'll get the same salary as the men."

Welfare benefits are worth up to $7 an hour, Tapp says. That's why the transitional benefits are so important. "This economy will not support $8.00 and $9.00 an hour jobs in the first job for the welfare recipient who's never worked before," says Vaughn Smith, director of the Knoxville-Knox County Private Industry Council, which implements many Families First programs. "The way to get there is to take the $6.00 or $6.50 an hour job now, continue to provide the subsidies for the person who is working at that level as long as it is necessary, while they continue to upgrade their skills... and they'll eventually get themselves out of that low-wage job."

Rich is a model "customer," as welfare clients are now known under Families First. She's had two years of college and now hopes to attend a technical school, with government assistance, to study accounting. To cut Fresh Start training classes might mean losing her $185 a month check--90 percent attendance is necessary. Yet many customers ignore the threat. "They told us 65 were registered, and only 18 showed up," Rich says. One was a friend of hers. "When she found out about those classes, she said, 'I'm not going to waste my time,' and went out and got the first job she could." The welfare department estimates that about a third of the no-shows do that--just find work--although the hard information is scanty so far.

And what happened to those women who didn't participate and who didn't find jobs? Or those who dropped out OR refused to sign a PRP?

"One of the scary things is that the state can't tell you," answers Gordon Bonnyman Jr.

Scion of a wealthy Knoxville family that made its millions in nonunion coal mines, Bonnyman was a Legal Aid attorney until recently, when the Republican Congress limited the political activities of these federally-funded advocates. He now operates out of the nonprofit Tennessee Justice Center in downtown Nashville. Gordon Jr. seems to have spent most of his life overcompensating for the reputation of his father--playing Luke Skywalker to Gordon Sr.'s Darth Vader.

"I litigated against AFDC for 20 years," the fortysomething lawyer says. That's the acronym for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the New Deal entitlement program whose tombstone reads "1935-96." One of the more egregious failures of big government in American history, AFDC was the very purgatory of poverty, somewhere between starvation and recovery, a coma-like existence for millions of women and their children. Bonnyman loathed the micromanagement of people's lives--the "man-under-the-bed" rules, for example, which prohibited unmarried fathers from even visiting their children, the penalty being expulsion from the program, thus making mothers even more dependent on government sustenance. "You know, the welfare department is the IRS with attitude--and about a third of the resources."

So, however reluctantly, Bonnyman found himself drawn into the legislative sausage factory on Capitol Hill, where he helped season the recipe for Families First, whose first helpings are being cooked up and served out now. "The law that got written was more humane, more rational, a more sober effort to make policy than--certainly-- what we saw in Washington," he says.

For him and many other liberal lobbyists in Nashville, hammering out the legislation was a race with the Republican 104th Congress in Washington, which was barely won. President Clinton had vetoed two GOP welfare reform bills, but by late summer this year he had run out of excuses to deliver on what, after all, he had promised in his 1992 campaign--to end welfare as we know it. The President, in fact, never had a plan in writing. So, in late August, he signed the GOP legislation and then promised he would change it after the November elections when the Democrats would regain control of Congress. But the Democrats did not regain control of Congress, so...

In the meanwhile, Gov. Don Sundquist appointed Leonard Bradley to head up the Welfare Reform Task Force to draw up the plan which became known as Families First. "One of the things about a state like Tennessee is that it is still small enough that personalities make a big difference," says Bonnyman. "I think Leonard Bradley was key, a thoroughly decent, bright person with a history of administering AFDC--and a good negotiator. There were committee hearings where people would grandstand, sometimes at his expense, and he would keep his cool and try to keep it being discussed at a policy level as opposed to political posturing." In July, just before Congress and the President agreed on a new federal welfare law, the Clinton administration formally approved Families First, thus allowing the state to use this program for 11 years. "The state is better off having a waiver than being under federal law," says Bonnyman.

He prefers the Tennessee plan because it provides more escape hatches than the new federal law. There were 30 waivers granted to the state by Washington. One difference between the state and federal plans, for example, is the rate for "minimum work participation." Federal law tightens requirements for each of the next five years. Tennessee's Families First has no such provisions whatsoever. For the next 10 years, our state is exempt from these and other Clinton-Gingrich restrictions.

Nonetheless, Bonnyman believes Families First is flawed. "There's not enough money for transportation, and the child care rates are not adequate," he says. But the biggest problem he sees is the state Department of Human Services itself. "As an entity, it's not any place you'd want to go to have somebody make profound decisions about the life course of you and your children in a 15 minute episode." He is referring to the interviews that DHS case workers conduct with welfare mothers as they come off AFDC and enroll in Families First.

DHS officials say these sessions normally take an hour to an hour-and-a-half. But, Bonnyman insists, "These PRPs are being thrown together in 15 minutes. I heard yesterday that they're being done over the phone. I've seen some of them--they're ludicrous!" The whole idea of transforming the roles of DHS employees overnight strikes him as preposterous. "You take a 25-year-old social worker who's basically got keyboarding skills...and that's it. Now, suddenly we sprinkle holy water over them, and we've made them case management specialists, who are going to work out a life plan for women to turn their lives around." Bonnyman despises social workers more than Newt Gingrich. There are saints among them, he says, but then there are the case workers with attitude, who now delight in saying: "'You're toast, and I'm so glad to be here to give you that message. I've wanted to give you that message for a very long time.' That has been the attitude that I have encountered over the years."

He sighs. "The misconception is that these are people who are basically dumb and sorry, and they really need counseling and a kick in the butt, and they'll be right as rain. I think that's the basic conception of welfare reform." The consequences of failure, he says, amount to this: "If in fact the stories that I'm getting are true--which is that the majority of the people with PRPs are not showing up--we're going to see a big jump in child homelessness."

Prof. Leonard Bradley, chief architect of Tennessee's welfare reform, left the Sundquist administration last summer to teach political science at Tusculum College in Greeneville. Today, he cautions against any "rush to judgment" on the Families First program, which was designed with "best guesses" on some outcomes, such as child care and transportation for those finding new jobs. "It will be two years before we know if it is working as planned," he says.

That is why the first formal evaluation of Families First will not be presented to the state treasurer until the session after next. "You have no past to look at," he explains in early December, when there was less than a hundred days of data from which to draw conclusions. It is a "shot in the dark" in some respects, he says. But Bradley is confident about one thing: "There is probably more than enough for child care and transportation this year." In Knoxville, less than 20 cases out of the first 500 were problematic, officials say.

The Families First budget is $72 million, statewide, for nine months of the current fiscal year that ends on June 30, including $44 million for child care and $10 million for transportation. Sundquist is expected to ask for an additional $40 million for Families First the next fiscal year.

The first meeting of the state Family First advisory council convened in Nashville on December 5, presided over by DHS commissioner Linda Rudolph. But it was Bradley--handsome, engaging, modest...the sort of fellow Jimmy Stewart used to play in the movies--whom the other members regarded with awe.

The commissioner reported that 16.9 percent of the people whose cases had come up for review so far were "no longer on welfare"--5,000 cases out of the 29,000 processed in September and October. Then Mike O'Hara, her assistant commissioner, tried to explain where the 5,000 or so missing welfare moms have gone: "Roughly a third said they had a job or had gone to work. Approximately a third refused to sign the Personal Responsibility Plan, and we have just really anecdotal information on that--a lot of them said they were going to work, some said they were going to receive child support, and some others said that they just didn't want to fool with the process. And another third contacted us--or didn't contact us--but basically asked for their case to be closed. So we don't really have an idea at this juncture. However, we are getting some follow-up survey from the University of Memphis."

About 1,700 people either "contacted or didn't contact" the welfare department to have their cases closed--whatever that means--but either way, their cases were trumpeted as victories of 20 percent or greater reductions of the welfare rolls during the first two months of Families First. So Bonnyman is right: the state has no precise measure of what is happening so far. But neither does he, and the anecdotal information gathered for this story, after the first 100 days of Families First, has some bright spots.

"We are putting a strong emphasis on the collection of child support," Rudolph says, noting that a new computer system to track deadbeat dads is already in place across a third of the state and that eventually this would hook into a national system. Once located, these men would face revocation of their driver's licenses, professional certificates--even hunting and fishing licenses.

Suddenly, the soft-spoken Bradley interjected the most troubling observation of the meeting: "Some may have been intimidated by the program, but we can't know that, can we?" The unspoken question was what would happen to the children of these women, which O'Hara anticipates by reminding his audience that health department nurses would visit the homes of those who had been sanctioned--that is, kicked off the rolls for non-compliance. They would then report back to DHS if emergency funding for rent and utilities need be arranged.

In Knoxville the next morning, about 40 protesters disrupted the local Families First advisory council's meeting. Organized by Solutions to Issues of Concern to Knoxvillians (SICK), it was a well-oiled demonstration with a press kit. Three welfare mothers read their statements, and the board was presented with a letter to Commissioner Rudolph, which the council members were asked to sign.

SICK wants case workers to explain rights and the appeals process to clients and for them to be allowed to bring another person--an advocate--to PRP meetings. They also ask for an extension of the five-year limit in cases where DHS cannot provide services, such as child care and transportation. Actually, all their demands are already DHS policies. The sticky point is the one of advocates, who are allowed and even welcomed, unless they gum up the interviews.

After about a half hour of SICK's unscheduled presentation, which ended cordially, the council moved on with its prepared agenda, which included a couple of sobering reports from DHS officials. Tina Kent, who happens to be Debbie Rich's DHS case manager, drew a gasp when she revealed that she is presently in charge of at least 200 cases. "I don't see all of them in a month," the twentysomething social worker responded, "only about 45 or 50 a month." What people say off-the-record is that the state really doesn't have enough case workers to carry out such an ambitious program.

Perhaps the most alarming news that morning is that two out of three people who signed their PRPs in Knox County have been no-shows at mandatory meetings, and that they face losing their welfare checks. Or so it would seem. Many of these people simply reschedule appointments, DHS officials say. Chronic no-showism is routine--there was a 40 percent no-show rate for semi-annual re-certification on the old AFDC program here. This, incidentally, is a national phenomenon. As the Washington Post reported this month, "New studies of work programs in Indianapolis and New York City report that about half of all recipients who are referred to work programs failed to show up, despite the threat of losing their welfare checks."

The most important demand that SICK makes is that if clients "can't work because of a lack of child care, transportation, or other needed services in the Personal Responsibility Plan, they will not be sanctioned and their benefits will be extended beyond the 18 month and 5 year time limits [sic]." Repeatedly in interviews for this story, officials would explain one way or another that the "clock would stop" on welfare limits. Finally, one DHS official, Viv Stidham, says, "There's nothing absolute about either the 18- or 60-month caps. There are numerous exceptions."

That explains why liberals like Bonnyman Jr. think Families First is a better law than Washington's. The Tennessee plan does not have real time limits.

One of Families First's "missing women" is LaRoyce Dalton, a 39-year-old mother of a teenager and a 3-year-old who lives in a Section 8 house near Asheville Highway. Raised on welfare, she came to "hate the thought" of it. "That's all we knew," she said, remembering that her grandmother helped the family live a decent life. Dalton worked in child care before her own child became sick and she had to go on welfare for more than three years.

"I took myself out of the system," she says. "I didn't see how it would benefit me--a program so long and drawn out. Then they didn't guarantee a job. I feel like it was a waste of my time. When I didn't go to get recertified, I felt good . The system is just crazy. They just make you dependent on them."

Although she has lost her monthly check and food stamps, she still has housing assistance and child care. One thing that emboldened her was a new arrangement to get child support directly from the father instead of DHS. "I'm surviving," she says. "We haven't been hungry a day."

Her appraisal of the system is harsh. Some social workers, she says, were fine people, but others acted like they were giving away their own money. "Some of them talk to you like you are a nobody. They humiliate you. If you are a weak-minded person, they will bring you down to the lowest level. To be labeled a 'customer'--that would be enough to drive me off," she says with a laugh.

Then, more seriously, she reflects on Families First. "I hate it because so many kids will be hungry and homeless. There are women my age who can't read. Some won't be able to go to work. Some are just slow."

One official with long experience with public housing residents, KCDC director Fred DeBruhl, worries about these women, too--the ones who grew up in the projects, have fourth, fifth, or sixth grade educations, who moved into their own apartments as young people with babies, got a check every month, and now seldom move beyond that world. "A lot of programs come and go to change the system, so a lot people think Families First will go away. Then I get the feeling that a lot of people are scared, and if you are scared, you are less likely to participate," he says, echoing what Bradley said in Nashville about intimidation. The housing director says, "Somehow, we've got to tell them: 'This is your opportunity.' The problem is getting people to come out to meetings."

As for the dire predictions about new waves of homeless people next year, statistical evidence in Knoxville shows no sign of real trouble yet. Of about 3,700 cases handled by the Knox DHS office during the first three months of Families First, there were only 99 actual non-compliance sanctions, and they can be appealed. Exceptions are myriad, and Legal Aid attorney Ted Kern says, "We'll dig around till we find one" for clients with appeals cases.

The issue of evictions from public housing is the most potentially explosive--and so far the least likely to happen anytime soon, local officials feel. Hilton Bolton, DHS chief for Knox County, explains that if a Families First case is closed by sanction, the Department of Health visits the household head to check on the children. If the family is likely to be evicted, or its utilities cut off, DHS is authorized to make an auxiliary payment in the exact amount of the Families First check that has been denied. And these payments could go on indefinitely. "It's a safety net for children," say Bolton. "We're funding the Health Department visits. But we haven't paid for a single one so far."

"The American people are not going to let the government put people out on the street," says DeBruhl, who does not anticipate a crisis in 1997. He is excited by the opportunities that Families First provides. "Let's give this thing a year or two," he says.