(WOMENSENEWS)–A progressive, Oakland, Calif., tank says the 1996 devolution of federal welfare to state-run programs has resulted in a generally chaotic and arbitrary system that has been successful in reducing the number of families assisted but has failed to lift families out of poverty.

A recent report published by the Applied Research Center, based on its researchers’ collaboration with 15 community-based organizations in 13 states, said that while 1,500 adult welfare recipients (1,300 women and 200 men) surveyed complained of bias and sexual harassment, their biggest concern was the “system’s general chaos and caprice.”

“People are not getting the same or equal treatment across the board,” said Rebecca Gordon, the author of the study, “Cruel and Usual: How Welfare Reform Punishes Poor People.”

  • In Salt Lake City, almost 10 percent of the survey’s respondents had lost their children to state agencies, compared to less than 1 percent of the respondents in the other cities.
  • A single mother in Brooklyn, N.Y., lost all welfare benefits for herself and her three children because she failed to report that she and each of the children had savings accounts, although the total in all four accounts was 73 cents.
  • In Alameda County, Calif., 1 out of 20 women had been jailed for not reporting welfare over-payments. Elsewhere, such errors are usually handled through reducing amounts of future checks.
  • In Milwaukee, Wis., respondents said their training programs consisted of counting hangers at thrift stories or flipping fast-food hamburgers for less than the federal minimum wage ($5.15 per hour.)
  • In Brooklyn, N.Y., 61 percent of the applicants for assistance waited more than 30 days before receiving aid, while only 34 percent of those in Hartford, Conn., were forced to wait that long.
  • Administrators often mistakenly ended a family’s federal medical insurance coverage, known as Medicaid, when the family’s eligibility for cash benefits ended.

In addition to these large differences among the states, those surveyed also reported that the lack of safeguards or clear regulations left them vulnerable to sexual harassment and other biased treatment.

  • One in six women said she had experienced sexual harassment at her work assignment. One respondent said she was told by welfare administrators to keep quiet after being raped on the job.
  • One in three women were asked by welfare officials to answer invasive questions about her sex life.
  • Nearly two-thirds of those whose first language was not English received no translation help, even though federally funded programs are required to provide such assistance.
  • And significantly more people of color were required to complete “workfare” assignments in exchange for their labor, rather than be assigned to jobs paying actual wages of at least the minimum wage. An African American woman reported being told she could lose her benefits if she complained after being called “nigger bitch” on the job.

New System Lacks Cohesive and Clear Regulations

Gordon said that one major cause for the current state of the welfare system is the lack of established and centralized standards for the administration of state welfare programs. The report says that at least three federal agencies have issued guidelines and regulations for the equitable administration of the 1996 federal welfare law, known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, but they do not exist in any single place or under the jurisdiction of any single office.

Historically, the number of people on welfare has followed economic ups and downs, but in the mid-1990s, the idea that the welfare system was out of control and had to be revamped gained great momentum.

The public was confused about the size and extent of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.. Polls showed people believed welfare spending to be as high as 50 percent of the budget–although all federal welfare expenditures accounted for just 2 percent of the federal budget, according to the Applied Research Center study.

Rolls Cut By 50 Percent Between ’96 and ’99; Poverty Persists

The 1996 welfare law gave states block grants to pay for their support of single-parent families. Unlike the previous welfare law established in the 1930s, the new system of 1996 was designed with minimum federal oversight and maximum state decision-making. The program requires single heads of households to seek paid employment, setting a five-year lifetime cap on receipt of benefits. Along with this requirement, states were supposed to adopt various strategies and programs to assist single parents in managing care for their children and employment outside the home.

Using the measure of reducing the number of families assisted, the so-called welfare reform law has been successful. Nationwide, the number of families receiving federally financed assistance dropped by nearly 50 percent between 1996 and 1999, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

However, those results may reflect the strong economy, not the effectiveness of the new law. The Applied Research Center study found that most of the programs it reviewed–in Atlanta, Boston, New York, Cincinnati, Hartford, Conn., Los Angeles, Mexico, Mo., Milwaukee, Oakland, Calif., Salem, Ore., Salt Lake City, Seattle, Selma, Ala., and Sioux Falls, S.D.–provided neither additional money nor work assignments in which participants could earn substantially more than the amount of their previous welfare check.

The current welfare law expires at the end of this year and advocates on all sides of the political spectrum are organizing and lobbying for changes in the law.

Elizabeth Zwerling is a journalist based in Southern California who specializes in education and business, as well as women’s issues.