Welfare as We've Never Known It

Calculating the real impact of the welfare bill for Minnesota.

           And that's just the beginning of the political headaches. State lawmakers have to decide how long a family can get welfare (one year? two? five?); how much the benefit should be; and what to do with the people who, eventually, are cut off. Current estimates by the federal Office of Management and Budget estimate that at best, 40 percent of parents kicked off the rolls will end up finding permanent jobs, not all full-time, at average wages of $6 an hour.

           One safety net that won't be there for welfare reform's losers is food stamps. In the new system, those cut off from AFDC will no longer qualify for food stamps unless they participate in yet another welfare-to-work program. And many others, including seniors on Social Security, will see their food stamps reduced by as much as 25 percent. "That was one of the biggest shocks to me," says state Sen. Piper. "I don't know what people are supposed to do. I checked with the food shelves here in Austin, and they are empty."

           Like Piper, most local and state politicians appeared dazed by the welfare-reform news last week, and none had much to offer by way of a response. Minnesota could choose to make up for part of the estimated $1 billion-plus it's estimated to lose with its own money. The Legislature will have to consider that question, along with reform's other wrinkles, next spring. But, notes Piper, "with people also begging us for property-tax reform, begging us on education finance, and so on... I don't think the political will is happening right now." Besides, there's the new system's built-in deterrent against generosity: With states free to slash benefits, no one wants to stick out as a haven.

           Which leaves the people at the bottom of the political pecking order--county and city governments--very worried. Of Minnesota's 60,000-plus welfare recipients in 1994, one-third lived in Hennepin County, and a full one-fifth were in Minneapolis. Some outstate counties also have reported having more than half their population on food stamps. Previous experiences with welfare cutbacks (like the wave of GA cutoffs that swept states, including Minnesota, a few years ago) indicate that homelessness, suicide, and petty crime like panhandling all rise; locally funded services like shelters, emergency rooms, and food shelves are already bracing for the coming wave of new business. So are police.

           In the meantime, officials say, it's time to "get very, very creative." As always with such initiatives, welfare reform's effects won't hit all together; they'll drip out bit by bit, one turn of the screw at a time. There will also be plenty of administrative loopholes, accounting tricks, programs, and paperwork--whose costs, in turn, could further squeeze the benefits actually doled out to people. "If you really want to know what this is," says one Hennepin County worker, asking not to be named, "it's something that looks good for the politicians and provides job security for administrators. We'll still be spending money on ourselves, while we're putting people through all these new hoops."

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