WASHINGTON – Welfare clients will find it increasingly difficult to get work credit for going to college or receiving drug treatment under program changes that took effect Sunday.
The new rules will force some states to restructure some of their programs while welfare clients seek to make ends meet before their five-year lifetime limit on government assistance expires.
"These changes do not take into account the challenges a mother on welfare faces on a day-to-day basis in really fighting for her family and moving off public assistance," said Desmond Brown, director of welfare and health policy for Catholic Charities USA.
According to the definitions outlined by the Department of Health and Human Services, substance abuse treatment can only be counted for four consecutive weeks or six weeks over the course of a year.
Linda Meade, a public policy adviser for Catholic Charities USA in Baltimore, Md., called the drug treatment rules "ludicrous."
Limits on education are also a point of contention. Under the new rules, welfare recipients can't count obtaining a four-year degree as a work activity because "the statute limits vocational educational training to 12 months," said Wade Horn, HHS assistant secretary for Children and Families.
"It's the work changes that have the greatest potential to really affect what goes on in states," said Cathy Born, a researcher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, who publishes an annual study called "Life after Welfare."
Education and substance abuse counseling are some of the countable work activities defined by HHS as part of the 2005 reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, also known as welfare reform.
TANF, passed as part of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, limited welfare clients to five years of assistance as they transitioned from welfare to work. States received a fixed block grant in exchange for more flexibility and control over programs.
"Some people say that these new changes were needed to prevent states from gaming the system and prevent clients from lingering on welfare," Born said. "Others say this is the feds reneging on the deal."
Born was referring to the argument that the work activity limitations wrongly take away flexibility from the states granted by the 1996 legislation.
But a 2005 Government Accountability Office report found some states were too lenient with their requirements, allowing bed rest, getting a massage and reading a motivational book to be counted.
"There's not a big difference between 1996 and now, it's just 1996 assumed states would use common sense," Horn said. "Some states didn't unless you consider (getting a) massage job training."
For instance, Horn cited Maryland state data reported to HHS that said for a typical month in 2004, 73 percent of the adult caseload subject to the work requirement didn't participate in a work activity countable under the law.
But state policy makers warn that there's a story behind that statistic.
"That doesn't mean they weren't doing anything," said Richard Larson, policy director for the Maryland Department of Human Resources. "All that means is they weren't in federally defined activities."
Maryland has consistently met TANF's 50 percent work requirement, meaning half the state's caseload must be in a federally recognized work activity at any given time, even though the majority of its cases may not have been engaged in federally recognized work. The state can do that by taking advantage of credit it receives for reducing caseloads.
Maryland's caseload has declined nearly 80 percent since 1995, and it's the lowest it's been since September 1962, Larson said.
"The real question is, 'Is Maryland's welfare program successful?'" Larson said. "I think most people would say it is."
To reduce any negative effects of the credit, Congress changed the base-line year from 1995 to 2005, which means any reduction in caseload during those 10 years will not be calculated into a state's credit.
"Re-setting the base-line year really makes the slope that states have to climb really a lot steeper," Born said.
"It's going to be harder for states to meet the work rate than before," said Liz Schott, policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "There's going to be huge pressure on states to lower their caseloads and to have more families engaged in countable activities."
Though analysts and advocates worried about the future of welfare clients, they couldn't speculate about how this will all play out for families receiving TANF.
"I think it's fair to say that it is far more restrictive," Meade said. "What the results are for the families I don't know, I don't know (that) anybody can say."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.