Many penalized in Del. workfare program Half of recipients found to violate plan's rules

March 05, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Nearly half of the welfare recipients in Delaware's new work program have been financially penalized for violating the rules, according to a recently released study.

The prevalence of such penalties across the United States has emerged as one of the early concerns surrounding the new welfare law. Though hardly any families have exhausted the new time limits yet, tens of thousands have lost their benefits for violating rules that require them to work or take other steps toward self-support.

While several states have released estimates of the penalty rates, the Delaware study is one of the first rigorous outside evaluations, and it suggests that penalties may be more prevalent than previously thought. It was conducted by Abt Associates, a private research group in Bethesda, Md.

"This is not a problem that's isolated to Delaware," said David Fein, the report's author. "Compliance is a really big problem."

In Delaware, as in other states, the penalized families seem to be a mixed lot. Some fail to comply because they have better options, such as secret jobs or support from friends or relatives. Others seem confused about the new rules. And some suffer from mental-health or substance-abuse problems.

"It may just be that the hassle factor is such that people say, 'Forget it,' and go get a job," Fein said. "But some may say, 'Forget it,' and be unable to cope."

The study did not estimate how many of the penalized recipients went on to find jobs. In addition to seeking work or training, those in the program also had to make sure their preschool children were immunized and their older children were in school.

The frequency and severity of such penalties vary substantially by state. In Milwaukee last year, about a third of the recipients in the work program were penalized each month, and they lost their entire cash grant. In Oregon, only about 5 percent of the recipients are penalized each month, and they suffer escalating penalties that begin as low as $50.

In Delaware, recipients lose a third of their grant for their first violation and two-thirds for a second violation. After a third violation, they are permanently barred from cash aid. The report found that 49 percent of recipients had had one or more penalties over an 18-month period.

Delaware's governor, Thomas Carper, said he expected the penalty rates to fall as recipients got used to the new system.

One purpose of the penalties is to encourage clients to change their behavior. But the study found that only about 25 percent of the penalized recipients corrected their violation within six months.

Another 25 percent stayed on the rolls with decreased aid. And 50 percent of the penalized families left welfare. The study had no information on what happened to those families.

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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