Feds to New York: Quit Coddling Your Huddled Masses

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt issued his long-awaited new welfare regulations yesterday, and at first glance, calling them "draconian" would be a slur on dragons. Technically, Leavitt was only mandated to clarify the requirements of the new welfare law that went into effect this year—but given that the former insurance CEO was redefining everything from "job search" to "community service," his edicts promise to have a huge impact on the day-to-day lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.

"The net effect of the new law and these regulations," says Mark Greenberg of the Center for American Progress, "is to make it much harder for states to be flexible, use good judgment, and provide services to help families enter into sustainable employment."

Leavitt's 139-page missive defines what activities states can and can't count toward meeting the new federal requirement that half of all welfare recipients be in officially recognized "work activities"; fall short, and states risk losing federal funding. Among the new laws of welfareland, with translations below:

[The new rules] exclude [from counting as "community service"] activities such as participation in a substance abuse treatment program, mental health and family violence counseling, life skills classes, parenting classes, job readiness instruction, and caring for a disabled household members, which while important and beneficial, are not primarily directed to benefiting the greater community.

This is a huge blow to New York state, where "community service" has long included such activities as engaging in substance abuse treatment, caring for a disabled family member, or serving as a foster care parent. With those now excluded, the state will find it much harder to meet the new work-participation rates—meaning it will either need to start booting people from substance abuse programs, or squeeze more people into work from elsewhere. "Some of these things are being narrowed to the point where it's definitely going to be harder for New York to meet its participation rate," says Susan Antos of the Albany-based Empire Justice Center.

This typifies the overarching theme of the new regs: When we said work, we meant work—anything else, do it on your own time. (HHS undersecretary Wade Horn bragged to reporters yesterday that welfare recipients will no longer get credit for bed rest, shopping, motivational reading, and massage.) But back in the real world, says Sharon Parrott of the D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, people "may need substance abuse treatment before they can succeed in employment or more standard training programs. They may need mental health treatment, which may include getting their medications under control. These regulations don't give states any credit for those precursor activities."

We are explicitly restricting these practices to prevent the use of the term "vocational education training" from covering virtually any educational activity. In particular, the TANF program was not intended to be a college scholarship program for postsecondary education.

Or a scholarship program for English as a Second Language or GED studies, apparently, since those have been placed on the restricted list as well. Some people will still be able to count ESL and GED classes as "job readiness" activities—but they'd better study fast, because that category is limited to six weeks a year per person.

"They have systematically made it as difficult as they can for states to provide access to education," says Greenberg. "The term 'vocational educational training' has been used by states as a way to provide access to post-secondary education, basic education, and English as a Second Language, and the regulation essentially prohibits them from doing that."

[W]e chose to include all other non-recipient parents living with a child receiving assistance as work-eligible individuals.

With this innocuous sentence, Leavitt has ruled that "child-only cases"—those where the parents don't get benefits, but their kids do—are countable toward the state's participation rate. In other words, even if the state has cut off your benefits, you're still expected to work so long as your children are receiving aid.

By effectively dumping 34,000 new cases (the current New York City child-only caseload) into the countable column, this means another 17,000 city families need to be moved into "work activities" to avoid federal penalties—a huge incentive for the state to impose the "full-family sanctions" that Gov. Pataki has long craved, cutting off kids' aid if their parents don't follow the work rules.

The widespread fear is that, faced with sparse funding and tight deadlines, states will turn to the simplest option for getting their work-participation numbers up: more workfare programs, combined with a renewed push to purge the rolls. (States can earn one-for-one credits against the participation rate for every person they move off the rolls.) Meanwhile, options like schooling could end up scaled back or eliminated, even though numerous studies have shown that a degree is by far the quickest road out of poverty.

In response to those who charge the new rules are unworkable, Bush officials cited the state of Georgia, which has lifted its work-participation rate from eight percent to 69 percent in the last four years—mostly by slashing the welfare rolls by nearly three-quarters. (There's "no research evidence" to suggest that poverty rates in Georgia have fallen, says Parrott, who notes that both food-stamp and Medicaid usage have in fact risen there in recent years.) A better comparison, though, might be Michigan, where lawmakers are struggling to figure how to find work (or "work activities") for the 78,000 families who remain on the welfare caseload, and scrambling to find child care for all those parents once they've been shoehorned into the workforce.

While Greenberg says he hopes states will "complain loudly" during the upcoming 60-day comment period, and Parrott notes that it's still up to local governments to make the final decision on how to respond to the new restrictions, everyone agrees that the new HHS regs present states with a tough row to hoe.

"Wade Horn says the participation rate is only 50 percent, so why are states complaining?" says Parrott. "But when you speak to states that actually run the programs, they will tell you that because of all the things that come up in the lives of single parents, and the reality of running programs where you have to wait for programs, to meet anything remotely close to a 50 percent participation rate, you really need to put every person into activities that are countable.

"It's very easy for someone in Washington to say, 'Well, states only have to do this for half the people, they have plenty of flexibility.' But the reality on the ground is that's not how it works."

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