Consultant recommends more welfare system reform in Alaska

Posted: Sunday, November 11, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- More than four years after state leaders shook up Alaska's welfare system, they are looking at overhauling it in ways that could mean more help to parents working at low-wage jobs but harsher treatment for those who refuse to look for work.

On Friday, ideas for retooling the system were laid out before a state Senate subcommittee by an Oregon-based policy group that has studied Alaska's welfare system.

The assessment by the American Institute for Full Employment, funded by a wealthy Oregon businessman, found that the state has a good start at molding a ''work-first'' system.

Consultant Sandie Hoback said the system encourages recipients to join the work force and learn employment skills on the job. But some gaps and loopholes remain, Hoback told legislators.

The consultants said parents who refuse to look for work or participate in activities such as on-the-job training could receive progressively deeper cuts to their welfare payments. Eventually, the family could be cut off entirely. But if the parent began moving toward a job, the welfare payments would resume.

In contrast, Alaska's current system reduces welfare payments when parents don't try to work but never cuts off families entirely. The penalties last for six months or one year even if the parent decides to cooperate with work requirements.

The proposal would help create a more family-friendly approach by allowing the parent to get back in the welfare program, the report said. Thirty-seven other states do it that way, Hoback said.

Among the other recommendations:

-- People who work but do not earn enough money to survive could get welfare payments indefinitely if the state created and financed a supplemental program. Currently, if low-wage earners accept a small welfare check to supplement their pay, it counts against their five-year lifetime limit to receive welfare.

-- The state could directly subsidize employers, especially in rural or economically hard-pressed areas where welfare clients may have trouble finding a job.

-- New parents could be forced to start looking for work much sooner. Currently, they are exempt from work requirements for a year. Under the recommendation, the requirements would kick in after 16 weeks, though state officials worry that child care for infants can be hard to find.

The consultant also focused on private contractors that the state hires to prepare welfare clients for work, place them in jobs and manage their cases.

The state typically assesses contractors based on how many clients they serve. Instead, the state should assess contractors based on how many people get and keep jobs, or move up to higher-paying jobs, Hoback said.

In addition, the state signs multiyear contracts with private agencies even before they have proven themselves, which should not happen, she said. A contractor in western Alaska has been particularly ineffective, providing virtually no casework, the institute report found.

Since welfare reforms took effect four years ago, the number of families on public assistance dropped from a monthly average of 12,096 to about 7,000.

The American Institute for Full Employment was started in 1994 in Klamath Falls, Ore., by businessman Dick Wendt, who has made a fortune manufacturing windows and doors, Hoback said. The institute supports converting public assistance benefits into wage subsidies and did the Alaska assessment for free, as it does for any state, she said.

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