Boston Globe, April 6, 2008: Not so well after welfare

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THE GOAL of welfare reform wasn’t to slash social spending to the bone, but to equip poor families to become self-sufficient. The rolls would shrink, the idea went, as recipients of cash assistance joined the labor force. States would then reinvest the savings in the toughest cases – such as those parents who needed extensive training and child care help to succeed at work. So what happened to all the money?

In Massachusetts, welfare caseloads plunged, from 103,000 in 1995 to 45,000 in February. But there hasn’t been a dramatic reinvestment. Instead, from 1995 to 2007, total spending on low-income families fell by $588 million in real dollars to about $1.4 billion, according to a report released Tuesday by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center and the Home for Little Wanderers, a nonprofit human service agency in Boston.

Sadly, the spending decline isn’t the result of upward mobility among former welfare families. Massachusetts instituted welfare reform in 1995. Federal reform followed in 1996. Nationwide, the percentage of people living below the poverty line fell from 14.5 percent in 1994 to 12.3 percent in 2006. But the new report says that the Massachusetts rate has held steady at about 10 percent.

And even when families climb above the federal poverty rate, a paltry $17,600 for a family of three, they don’t get very far. In Massachusetts, the rate of individuals living at or below 200 percent of poverty has “hovered around 25 percent between 1995 and 2007,” according to the report.

And the federal poverty standard understates the problem in Massachusetts, where heat and housing are unusually pricey. In Boston, for example, a family of three with a preschool and a school-age child needs an income of more than $58,000 a year to cover basic expenses independently, according to the Crittenton Women’s Union, a local nonprofit.

It’s time to “begin a new conversation” about how to help poor people move into the middle class, argues Noah Berger, the executive director of the budget center.

Universal healthcare is one good step. And the state can make long-term plans and short-term investments in child care and training. The state’s Department of Early Education and Care has invested in full-day preschool programs that support working families year-round. Massachusetts must also help more adults gain advanced skills needed for jobs in healthcare, information technology, and other industries.

Cutting welfare caseloads isn’t enough. A state investment in families who are stuck earning minimal wages could help the entire economy prosper.

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