Connecticut becomes first state to remove welfare safety net 325 are losing benefits, but 274 of those have jobs

November 01, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- At the stroke of midnight last night, 325 Connecticut residents peered into the dimness of their futures and saw something that many find truly frightening.

For the first time, they're looking at a future without welfare.

For these people, the first such group in the nation, the final bell has tolled. They came to the end of the line in one of the nation's boldest experiments in welfare reform: Connecticut's 21-month lifetime limit for receiving benefits.

Both proponents and foes of welfare reform are watching Connecticut closely to see if the feared consequences of cutoffs -- homelessness, hunger, child abuse and neglect, interstate flight -- will materialize.

Connecticut's experience is providing important clues about the impact of welfare reform: Faced with a rapidly approaching cutoff, more than half of affected recipients have gone to work.

But given the option of continuing to receive benefits or "banking" them for an uncertain future, virtually all have chosen to let the clock run out. It's a decision that could prove costly should they fall on hard times.

"How will I make it?" asked 25-year-old Jennifer Christiana, whose benefits are being cut off because the wages she receives at a discount drug store in Hartford push her family just above the federal poverty line.

Christiana -- by most standards the model of what Connecticut's program hopes to achieve -- used her final 21 months on welfare to build a $2,000 savings account while she worked her way onto the lowest rung of her store's management ladder, where she earns $6.50 an hour.

While most welfare experiments have been tried somewhere, at some time, lifetime limits have never before been a feature of the national welfare landscape.

The landmark welfare reform law of 1996 changed all that. The federal measure told states they must allow welfare recipients no more than 60 months of aid in their lifetimes, although a state can exempt up to 20 percent of welfare families from the limit.

States were permitted to set even shorter limits than five years, and 21 have chosen to do so.

Connecticut and Texas set the shortest limits: 21 months and 18 months, respectively. Because Texas started its clock ticking later, the cutoff deadline was first reached in Connecticut.

Connecticut officials point proudly to six-month extensions as evidence of their compassion.

But they take greater pride in pointing to the circumstances of those residents who leave welfare today. Of the 325 families whose cases are being closed, 274 are going off of welfare because they are in jobs that have lifted them above the federal poverty level.

In the state's first round of cutoffs, only 13 families are being booted off welfare despite having no apparent means of financial support.

A state contractor will attempt to link those 13 families with community-based agencies and, if necessary, provide modest funds for food, clothing, shelter and emergency needs.

Pub Date: 11/01/97

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