Welfare to work program taking off in Alaska

Posted: Thursday, February 17, 2005

The number of Alaska families collecting welfare has dropped 54 percent since the inception of the federal welfare reform efforts in 1996, according to the state Division of Public Assistance.

In addition, spending on the program during that same time period has dropped nearly 58 percent, to $49 million, the division said.

"It's been a tremendous success," said Katherine Farnham, the division's director. "Our performance has been better than most states on employment outcomes. We've really placed an emphasis on getting people into work activities and then getting them off benefits."

Former President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform legislation in 1996. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act ended the individual entitlement to welfare cash benefits and established a cap on federal funding in the form of a fixed block grant to states. The legislation set a time limit of a total of 60 months of collecting welfare benefits, prompting states to find ways to help residents get off the rolls and find employment to sustain themselves.

In June 1996, the Alaska Temporary Assistance for Needy Families supported about 13,000 families. In October 2004, the latest figures available, that figure dropped to about 5,500 families. At its peak, the division supported 13,164 families in April 1994.

Funding for families on temporary assistance dropped from $115.2 million in fiscal year 1997 to about $49 million in fiscal 2004. In 2004, the temporary assistance caseload decreased by 9 percent and the cash benefits paid out decreased by nearly 11 percent.

The percentage of all Alaskans receiving cash benefits decreased from 6.2 percent in fiscal year 1994 to about 2.5 percent in fiscal 2004.

"We're getting Alaskans back to work," Department of Health and Social Services commissioner Joel Gilbertson said in a release. "And once they get back to work, we're giving them the services they need to help them stay there."

Alaska's public assistance division has worked to develop partnerships with other state agencies to help welfare recipients move into the work force and become self-sufficient, Farnham said.

"The department went through various changes, it partnered with the Department of Labor (and Workforce Development) and with the Jobs Center System to make this work well," she said. "The focus has been in job placement. We try to place people in the level of their skills, and that doesn't necessarily mean low-entry."

The state has also placed a strong focus in helping people overcome one of the major barriers of getting a job — child care. Child care can cost hundreds of dollars a month, often much more than an entry-level employee can afford. The state offers subsidies — up to about half the costs — to those families with small children.

"Child care benefits are a good investment as opposed to welfare," Farnham said.

The work seems to have paid off. In 2003, Alaska ranked eighth in the nation in providing help in paying for child care and 10th in the nation for placing recipients into jobs.

For those numbers, Alaska received a $3.18 million bonus from the federal government, its third High Performance Bonus Award in the last three years. Alaska has received a total of $9.54 million in bonuses.

The division of public assistance is using that money to further help people overcome the barriers to getting and keeping a job, Farnham said. Part of that will go toward helping replenish the child care assistance budget, which has seen increases in payouts.

Some $33 million is projected to go toward child care assistance in 2005, compared to $18 million in 1996, according to the health and social services department. Last year, the agency paid $31 million.

The public assistance division also helps families by providing other benefits to help with the transition from welfare to self-sufficiency. This may include payments for heating assistance or helping sign up for food stamps.

"Sometimes they utilize (such benefits) for a while, or only seasonally," Farnham said.

People using those services appear to be increasing. The number of families enrolled in the food stamp program, which is federally funded, was 7 percent higher, to about 19,000 families, in 2004 than the year before.

Anecdotally, officials at food banks, local shelters and other social service organizations say they believe more former welfare recipients are using their services, as well.

Farnham said she's heard about this increased demand and the division is looking to partner with local food banks to help get those families enrolled in the food stamp program.

"The goal is that everyone who needs food gets it," she said. "The food stamp program and the child care program continue to rise steadily. We need to learn what to do with this rising demand. Child care is facing some funding challenges."

The division also has plans to figure out ways to get longtime temporary assistance families off the roles and into work.

Research has shown that a multitude of reasons keep some people dependent on welfare for long periods of time. These may include hidden disabilities, domestic violence issues, alcohol dependency or others.

"In many cases, one problem begets another," Farnham said. "While there are resources to help them, the resources tend to be fragmented. You go one place for health services, another for alcohol counseling, another for food stamps. They're spread out all over town."

The division wants to offer integrated case management services and will invest $200,000 this year into a program to test the idea in two regions of the state. The division will focus this program on families that have received temporary assistance for more than 30 months.

Another partnership development in the works is aimed at employers to determine their needs and the training that will be necessary to place people on temporary assistance in those jobs, Farnham said.

"We need to know the real jobs in the community and how we can get people in them," she said. "A regional advisory committee will help identify those needs."

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