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Welfare Reform: Is It Working?

by Vickie Mitchell

What better way to understand welfare reform than meet face-to-face with those who will live with the effects of this reform?

That was the philosophy of a team of researchers from four areas at UK as they undertook a study of welfare reform in Lexington. Team members were Claudia Peck-Heath, associate dean of the College of Human Environmental Sciences; Jo Ann Ewalt, a doctoral candidate in the Martin School of Public Policy and Administration; Mary Secret, an assistant professor of social work; and Teri Wood, former director of the Survey Research Center. (Wood has since left the university to serve as epidemiologist with the Kentucky Department for Public Health.)

The team developed a survey and oversaw interviews with 173 welfare recipients during the summer of 1997. The initial survey, on the heels of the implementation of welfare reform last July, will be the baseline for a long-term study of the effects of reform on the well-being of welfare recipients and their families. The team hopes to survey participants annually.

Ninety-eight percent of the respondents were women, 50 percent were African-American and 47 percent were white. The average age was 30, and the average number of children was two.

Preliminary results of the survey indicate that though most respondents are confident they'll find work, they are pessimistic about others in the same situation. Sixty-two percent believe they will be able to get a job that will pay well. However, only 16 percent feel that other recipients will find jobs.

"Welfare, as we have historically known it, is gone. Recipients must 'transition' into employment," says Peck-Heath. "It could be respondents are internalizing this message. Though they are personally able to cope with this change by perceiving an optimistic outlook for themselves, they may, down deep, feel the real dilemma that welfare reform presents for them. They may then express that apprehension by indicating less anticipated success for others." Peck-Heath says this is an example of the complex nature of welfare reform.

The survey found that 43 percent of the respondents are currently employed and 17 percent hold more than one job. Of those working, 88 percent make between $4 and $7 per hour.

Of those not employed, 32 percent said going to school is the main reason they aren't working, and 27 percent said taking care of home and/or family is the main reason. Very few pointed to barriers such as cost or availability of child care or transportation, or being unable to find work or not having qualifications for work, as the main reason for not working.

The timing of the initial survey was critical to the project's success.

"We needed to get the data collected quickly," says Secret. "If we didn't get it collected before the full impact of welfare reform hits, we wouldn't have a baseline."

The interviewers--mainly University graduate students--used laptop computers in their interviews and spent about 45 minutes in each home, asking questions from a survey of more than 300 potential questions.

The survey measured whether basic needs like medical and child care were being met. It also touched potentially sensitive areas--whether welfare recipients had other sources of income, how family members might have helped them and barriers to employment they faced.

"This research has real-world applications," says Peck-Heath. Ewalt agrees. "We definitely feel that policy implications are one of the outcomes, particularly on issues like child care."