JUNEAU (AP) -- A proposed change in state welfare law could put more money into subsidizing the wages of people trying to move off welfare.
A measure that passed the House Health Education and Social Services Committee this week also would remove a limit on the number of exceptions the department can grant to a five-year lifetime cap on benefits.
And the proposal allows for harsher action when clients fail to follow a plan for moving off welfare.
The bill is based on recommendations of the American Institute for Full Employment. The heads of the House and Senate Health Education and Social Services Committees, Republicans Sen. Lyda Green and Rep. Fred Dyson, asked the group to study Alaska's welfare system last year.
The bill would remove a cap on the number of exceptions the state can grant to the five-year lifetime limit on benefits. Current law allows up to 20 percent of the caseload to be exempt from that limit.
State Division of Public Assistance Director Jim Nordlund said 20 percent was appropriate in 1996 when the caseload was 12,000, but now it has dropped to 7,000. By 2004, the current law may not give the division leeway to keep supporting genuinely needy families, he said.
Instead of a cap, the bill would allow exceptions to the five-year limit if a family meets particular criteria, including disabilities in the family or inability to keep a job due to effects from domestic violence.
''I would say this provision is the most important provision to us in the bill,'' Nordlund said.
The measure also increases the amount of money the welfare program can put into wage subsidies. Currently, the state can use all or part of a client's welfare check to help pay their salary if an employer would not hire them otherwise.
The change would allow the state to add to that subsidy by also using the amount a client would have received in food stamp benefits.
Sandi Hoback of the Institute for Full Employment said using work subsidies had been very successful in Oregon, where she formerly headed the welfare program.
''I think it's a really important piece to a comprehensive package,'' she said.
Nordlund said the employer would need to kick in some money on top of the subsidy, so the client comes out ahead by working.
The current wage subsidy provision in Alaska law hasn't been used much because the state has been pretty successful at moving people into jobs without it, Nordlund said.
Also under the proposed measure, families that don't participate in self-sufficiency activities, such as looking for a job, could face stiffer sanctions, including losing all their benefits.
Nordlund said the department won't oppose the change since safeguards in the bill provide that children won't be harmed by the withdrawal of help. If necessary, the department could manage aspects of the family's finances itself, such as paying rent directly to the landlord.
The bill also would let the department continue providing what are called ''self-sufficiency services,'' such as child care, transportation or work subsidies, to families after their five-year limit if they still need some help to keep their jobs.
The measure also would let the department provide a larger payment to a family before they sign up for welfare if that shot of income can help with short-term problems, such as getting a car fixed, that will keep a family off welfare.
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.