The Face of Welfare Reform in Rural Colorado

The well-being of families is challenged

Out with the old, in with the new. The 60-year-old system of social support for impoverished Americans underwent a major upheaval in 1997. Aid to Family with Dependent Children (AFDC) and public assistance programs were basically dismantled.

The new program, Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) resulting from the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1997 (PRWORA) became the "welfare to work" program. Employment was the key issue. The intent of the program revisions was to help recipients get off of the welfare rolls and to a level of self-sufficiency. There is a new insistence that people be employed or in employment preparation activities, to receive assistance. Carole Makela, professor for the School of Education, wants to know if rural low income families are making ends meet.

The history of social support has long been controversial. Mother's Aid began in the 1900s followed by President Roosevelt introducing the highly debated AFDC in 1935. The following decades created what was referred to as the "culture of poverty" or the "cycle of dependency". In 1988, the Family Support Act (FSA) created the Job Opportunity and Basic Security (JOBS) program. These programs required recipients to go to work, enroll in school or enter a work-training program. The states then were required to provide support services for the recipients and to actively pursue child support payments. When the recipients failed to hold up their end of the deal, they were penalized by a reduction or loss of benefits, but the states faced no adverse consequences for failing to provide the support services.

This led to the welfare reform legislation in 1997 when President Clinton intended to reform or change the system. Instead, legislation abolished it. Thus, TANF and PRWORA were created. There is no longer an entitlement to public welfare support, and there is a two-year limit on aid and a lifetime limit of five years, though states can have more stringent limits. In Colorado the program devolved to the county level.

The ability to function in the changed environment of policies and programs and the effect on the quality of life for rural families with children is being studied. Makela is tracking 30 to 40 families in selected Colorado counties. A baseline at the beginning of this project will identify the families' situation and will track changing policy within the counties and the state. The community environments and factors at the beginning of the project and at the end of the project will be identified.

Makela has found that it takes an average of $16.27 per hour in Larimer County to maintain a household for a single mother with two children. There are not many jobs in rural Colorado for persons with limited work experience and skills that pay that rate, working at a lower hourly rate calls upon the coping skills of individuals and families as well as support systems to maintain a household. Lack of support services such as affordable daycare, housing, and dependable transportation coupled with the time needed during the day for travel to and from work, daycare, doctors, and schools challenge the well-being of these families.

As a result of the reform, we have far fewer people on welfare. For Makela, the concern is if low-income families are maintaining or improving their situations whether they use TANF, the Earned Income Credit (EIC) or other programs. Or, have we just lowered the number of welfare cases and altered their lifestyles. The compilation of the data will determine the success and long-term viability of the newer program. Rural America will be tested.

"The moral test of government is how the government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped." Hubert H. Humphrey