A Race To The Bottom?

           THE TERMS MAY vary, but one by one state legislatures around the Midwest are revamping AFDC and broader welfare programs. And though Congress has yet to pass a federal welfare package, that's an outmoded formality in one sense: Since the Clinton White House and both houses of Congress signaled their intent to send welfare back to the states, states have been seeking and getting waivers to design their own pilot programs. Part of the unspoken agenda seems to be making sure that each state fashions benefits no more generous--and if possible, less so--than its neighbors. In the Midwest, Wisconsin's W-2 proposal is casting the longest shadow.

           W-2 is possibly the most oppressive effort advanced by any state. It proposes to end AFDC as an entitlement by converting it to a work program. While this approach is shared by states across the country, Wisconsin ups the ante by refusing to guarantee applicants--even willing ones--a slot in its work-for-welfare program. Those applicants who do secure a spot have only a five-year shot at pulling their families out of poverty. At the end of this proposed lifetime limit, a mother with children no longer qualifies for state assistance.

           State "demonstration projects," the end product of federal waivers, are implemented either statewide or in select counties. They are welfare reform experiments, and as such, require a portion of the population to be set aside as a control group. This group receives standard benefits, while the demonstration group is subject to the vagaries of new policies. In the Midwest, where Minnesota and the surrounding states (Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, the Dakotas) have all applied for federal waivers, the pilot programs use smaller carrots and bigger sticks. In each state, the proposals include giving families allowances for earned income and child care costs in exchange for compliance.

           Penalties for noncompliance vary. In Iowa it can result in the loss of AFDC benefits for the entire family. Heads of households are required to sign personal responsibility contracts and draw up a timeline for getting off assistance; should they fail to cooperate, families receive three months of partial payments, during which time the mother is allowed to re-enroll. Further refusals result in the loss of family assistance for six months. Mothers enrolled in North Dakota's demonstration are also required to create contracts and timelines, and those failing to cooperate will have their portion of AFDC benefits removed. Should they continue to balk, the entire family can lose its AFDC benefits. Illinois families face a gradual loss of payments for noncompliance, and uncooperative Minnesotans are penalized by a 10 percent reduction in assistance payments.

           Time limits are another popular provision in the Midwest. In South Dakota, recipients are placed on either employment or education tracks, which run for two and five years respectively. When the time runs out, the parent is removed from AFDC and Medicaid rolls. North Dakota and Iowa have similar programs, and Illinois has a time limit that in certain cases would cut off all aid to families after 24 months. Minnesota's pilot does not contain a hard time limit, but mothers are "encouraged" to become self-sufficient within two years.

           But if they concur on time limits and workfare, the state systems around the Midwest diverge wildly on a number of other issues. In Illinois, as in Wisconsin, a mother who conceives while on AFDC is barred from receiving additional benefits. Both Iowa and Minnesota will soon require teenage mothers to live with their parents in order to receive assistance. And while all of the states pursue child support more aggressively, North Dakota now proposes to add penalties for mothers who fail to identify fathers. Illinois plans to impose a full-family sanction for mothers who fail to identify and locate the father of their children.

           Although Minnesota's approach has been less punitive than in neighboring states, things may be changing. A new pilot called "WorkFIRST" is slated to start in April 1997, and is targeted toward new applicants. Mothers wishing to receive state aid must look for work immediately or face sanctions. In addition, a particularly patronizing component of the plan requires the state to pay vendors directly for rent and utilities. And while the courts have struck down residency requirements as unconstitutional, Minnesota has nonetheless applied for a waiver which would prohibit new arrivals from receiving benefits for 30 days.

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