Commissioner says welfare reform has worked in Alaska

Posted: Tuesday, July 24, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Welfare reform approved in 1996 has succeeded in Alaska but child care challenges may make the picture less rosy in coming years, the state commissioner of Health and Social Services said Monday.

Karen Perdue said the number of people receiving welfare in Alaska is down 40 percent since Congress changed the rules five years ago.

Those rules say no one may receive more than five years of benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. In Alaska, the first families will hit that limit next July 1.

In the year following that date, Perdue estimated, about 300 families will be forced off the program. About 7,500 families now receive benefits in Alaska through state and tribally run programs.

In the early 1990s, welfare rolls averaged about 12,300.

''For people like me who were relatively cautious about welfare reform, it feels good to see where we are,'' Perdue said.

Perdue joined social service agency officials from Maine, Indiana, Utah, Michigan and Kansas on a panel presentation in Washington, D.C. for congressional staff members.

The officials all emphasized their desire to see Congress maintain reforms that gave states power to design their own programs. Welfare, food stamps and a few other social service programs are coming up for renewal in the next two years.

A related issue, Perdue said, is what will happen with child care.

Half the Alaskans now on welfare are attending school or training programs, Perdue said. The state helps pay for their child care with TANF money. It also transfers some of its federal TANF block grant to another program that subsidizes child care. Perdue said 40 percent of TANF money goes not to traditional welfare payments but to child care.

That could become a problem if Congress demands a ''welfare dividend,'' such as a reduction in the amount of money spent on welfare as people hit the five-year limit and leave the program, Perdue said. In states such as Alaska where TANF money is used to subsidize child care, such a cut could make a day-care center unaffordable to many people who have left welfare but still do not earn much money.

The average wage for a person who has found a job after leaving Alaska's welfare program in recent years is $10 per hour.

Perdue said that sounds good, but some people get jobs in construction at $18 per hour while others are working in retail for $6. At the lower end of the scale, a person with even one child in day care will have a hard time making ends meet, she said.

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