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Falling Welfare Numbers Raise Many Questions
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The marked decline in welfare numbers since 1996 is heralded by many as a welfare reform success, but questions remain about why people leave welfare and what happens to them next.
Dr. Julie N. Zimmerman, assistant Extension professor of rural sociology at the University of Kentucky, has been involved with this issue for several years. In a recent Southern Rural Development Center Information Brief, she said the declines in recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families began before the current reform, and questions what these falling numbers really mean.
"Declining recipiency has been held out as proof of the success of welfare reform, but this conclusion is premature for several reasons," Zimmerman said.
Reduced welfare numbers was just one of the goals of welfare reform. Others include increasing the number of two-parent families and reducing the number of out-of-wedlock births. Additionally, national welfare rolls dropped 41 percent between 1993 and last summer, a trend that began well before the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act.
In 1993, the Southern region had 29 percent of the nation's welfare caseload, but by 1998 these numbers had declined by 55 percent and now account for 22 percent of the nation's total.
"The South has experienced the greatest decline in welfare recipients," Zimmerman said. "This means the region has changed places, moving from the region with the highest number of welfare recipients in 1993 to the region with the second lowest number of recipients in 1998."
During this time, Mississippi's welfare rolls dropped 71 percent, the most in the region.
"It is not clear why the number of welfare recipients has declined," Zimmerman said. "Evidence from state evaluations provide a glimpse into the myriad of possible reasons."
These include getting a job, being made ineligible by changing requirements, children becoming too old for benefits or marrying an employed spouse who brings sufficient income to a household. Some leave for their own reasons and others are forced out for noncompliance.
Zimmerman pointed out that many who leave welfare rolls because they got a job are still at economic risk.
"Since low-skilled jobs are often the first to be cut in times of economic uncertainty, attributing declines in recipiency to welfare reform during a time of economic prosperity could lull us into a false sense of success," Zimmerman said. "Also, if about 50 percent are finding work nationwide, what's happening to those who are not finding work."
Another questions deals with the states which have not seen large welfare declines. Zimmerman said these states may face greater barriers to recipients finding some kind of employment. States with large numbers of persistent poverty counties do not have the same employment opportunities as other areas have.
"Some state evaluations have found that an initial job may provide insufficient income, but some subsequent jobs can pay better and offer better opportunities," Zimmerman said. "However, in rural areas there are fewer opportunities for advancement beyond the first job that takes a person off welfare."
Dr. Bo Beaulieu, director of the Southern Rural Development Center headquartered at Mississippi State University, said although the national number of welfare cases is falling, regional rates of decline vary considerably.
"The southern and north central regions of the United States have declines above the national average at 55 and 46 percent respectively," Beaulieu said. "The rest of the country did not meet the national average of 41 percent decline, with the northeast region falling 36 percent and the western region dropping 23 percent."
Zimmerman said these issues raise other questions that are being studied, but research takes time. More research is now looking at individual areas within states to learn the full impact of welfare reform. Zimmerman is working with the Rural Policy Research Institute to compile a database to help locate these rural studies.
"While caseload reductions have been used to declare the success of this massive reorganization of the social safety net, these figures only report that the numbers are declining. They do not tell us why it is occurring," Zimmerman said. "Without more information on what is happening to the families and children after they leave the system, it is premature to declare these declines as evidence of success."
More information on this trend can be found in the Southern Rural Development Center's January 1999 Information Brief, part of a series on welfare reform.