Welfare Reform: Reading Between the Lines

On Dec. 10, Gov. George Ryan’s office announced that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had awarded Illinois a $21.6 million “high performance” bonus because of the state’s successful welfare-to-work efforts. But welfare statistics can be confusing. Here are some statements from Ryan’s press release, and The Chicago Reporter’s analysis of the meaning behind the numbers.

“More than 115,000 Illinoisans have worked their way off welfare since July 1997.”

This statement, by Ryan, refers to the number of aid recipients who left the rolls as of Nov. 30 because their income from a job exceeded 300 percent of their welfare grants, said Mary Ann Langston, associate director of the Office of Financial Support Services for the Illinois Department of Human Services. But the number of cases closed because of earned income was just 31 percent of all 340,958 cases closed in fiscal years 1998 and 1999, which ended in June. About 50 percent closed because recipients did not comply with state rules; the rest were closed for other reasons. And, according to the department, nearly 25 percent of the recipients who left two years ago because of income have returned to the welfare rolls.

“Illinois ranked 10th in the nation in job placement …”

This ranking, by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is based on Illinois’ claim that 52.4 percent of its welfare recipients entered the work force between July 1, 1997, and June 30, 1998. The statistic represents the people who got jobs, regardless of how many hours they worked, how long they stayed in the jobs or whether they made enough to leave the welfare rolls.

“… and fifth in most improvement in job success.”

Illinois reported that in fiscal year 1998, 82.8 percent of welfare recipients with jobs kept them for at least three months. But this figure does not explain how many recipients earned enough money to move off welfare. It includes recipients who were working but are still receiving benefits, according to the federal Health and Human Services department.

“Of those leaving welfare, 89 percent did not return to assistance within 12 months and 76 percent did not return after 24 months.”

These figures refer to the percentage of people who did not return to welfare, not the percentage who stayed employed. A November 1999 study by the Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield and the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found more than one-third of the people whose welfare cases closed were unemployed within a year and were not receiving assistance. And those who did work faced “considerable instability” in keeping jobs. Nearly 30 percent struggled to find affordable child care and 22 percent had problems finding transportation to work, the study found.

“Illinois chose to work with families and address the factors that ensure a successful transition to self-sufficiency.”

This statement, by Howard A. Peters III, secretary of the human services department, is not supported by the University of Illinois study. It found that people who left welfare in 1997 and 1998 earned a median hourly wage of $7.11. Those wages amount to an income of $14,200 a year, barely above the federal poverty level of $13,003 for a family of three. More than a quarter reported struggling to make rent payments and buy food, according to the study, which was commissioned by the department. A Cook County welfare recipient with a child would need to earn more than $12 per hour to be truly self-sufficient, according to a 1998 study by Diana Pearce, a faculty member at the School of Social Work at the University of Washington.

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