Program sparks hope, concerns

Welfare reform working

Posted: Friday, January 26, 2001

Welfare reform has improved many lives; but for others, trouble lies ahead. Under new laws, some families will lose general assistance benefits starting in July 2002.

About 83 families on the Kenai Peninsula are approaching that deadline.

Tuesday, state welfare officials met with peninsula social service providers in Soldotna to discuss progress and problems. Those present voiced optimism about the general trends of reform, but deep concern about those left behind.

Under the 1996 law that overhauled the national and state welfare system, there is a five-year lifetime limit on general assistance benefits for most.

"A lot of these clients do not believe the deadline means anything," said Captain Troy Trickel of The Salvation Army in Kenai.

Trickel's charity sees about 200 families a month. Many aid recipients tell him they believe the government will relent and extend benefits indefinitely. If it doesn't, they plan to turn to charities like his to make up the difference, he said.

Jim Nordlund, director of the state's Division of Public Assistance, was blunt in his response.

"This community needs to know," he said. "There are people who will be cut off. It is the law."

As of December, the public assistance case load on the Kenai Peninsula was 453 families, the state workers reported. Of those, 177 are in Kenai, 131 in Soldotna, 67 in Homer, 43 in Seward and the remaining 35 in other parts of the borough.

Since reforms began three and a half years ago, the state has cut the number of people on the welfare rolls about in half. By using federal aid, reducing payments under some circumstances and reducing the number of households served, the state also saved about $41 million last year.

While most recipients are doing well and moving toward self-sufficiency, a minority needs more.

The Alaska Department of Health and Human Services is proposing changes to the state law to achieve a "soft landing" in 2002 for the people who still depend on public assistance and are not ready for independence. The people left on the rolls are those least capable of taking care of themselves for varied reasons.

When the five years begin to expire in 2002, the number of recipients eligible for exemptions to the limit will be capped at 20 percent by law.

By 2005, according to state projections, the eligibility clock will have run out for about 1,800 Alaska families, but only about 1,030 of those will be eligible for continued aid.

Nordlund and Jay Lively, the deputy commissioner of the state Department of Health and Human Services, asked the audience for input on proposals the department is making to modify the law. The officials advocate removing the 20 percent cap (while retaining strict eligibility requirements) and reinvesting savings to provide intensive services to the families most at risk. The approach would include one-on-one attention from case workers who can stay with a family throughout the transition.

"The challenge we face is how to serve those folks who have multiple barriers," Lively said.

Henry Novak, executive director of the Cook Inlet Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, said past talks he has had with child protection workers highlighted links among the complicated social problems afflicting the most vulnerable people.

Even if they get jobs, they have trouble keeping them. They may be involved with combinations of substance abuse, domestic violence and mental illness such as depression. All the issues must be addressed together for them to get on their feet, and the current system doesn't do that, he said.

"You refer them out into the ozone. You never see them again," he said.

The meeting concluded with a lively discussion of which services are succeeding and which need improvement to help poor families achieve the goals of jobs and independence.

Denali KidCare has encouraged people to move off assistance, because it lets them keep medical coverage while leaving the rolls, said Kenai Public Health Nurse JoAnn Hagen.

Day care was identified as a priority. On the positive side, day care on the peninsula seems to have enough space to accommodate families, public subsidies are available to help parents cover costs and, in some cases, it even presents a business opportunity. On the negative side, pay for day care workers remains pitifully low, people often are unaware of the subsidies they could receive, few providers are licensed and care for those who work hours outside the traditional 9-to-5 day is lacking.

Small towns and rural areas have special problems. They tend to lack social services such as food banks, shelters, counselors and formal support networks.

Transportation options have improved on the central peninsula recently thanks to the Central Area Rural Transit System, which offers (among other things) subsidized rides for workers on public assistance. But transportation remains a problem for low-income people in other parts of the peninsula, who may even have trouble getting to the central peninsula or Anchorage to access social services.

Education was identified as a major factor in employability. Attendees praised the laws' provisions requiring teen parents to remain in school, but called for more vocational education opportunities.

Jim Fisher, who serves on the board of the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, said such charitable ventures are already hard-pressed and may need public funding to meet future needs linked with getting people off welfare.

"The demand for food at the food bank continues to rise," he said. "We need more food now. We need more money right now. But we'll need even more after the 60-month expiration."

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