Thursday, June 24, 1999

6,000 isle families
may lose welfare

The loss of benefits could
come as early as Aug. 1 as a
result of new procedures
proposed by the state

By Gordon Y.K. Pang


Up to 6,000 Hawaii families could find themselves without welfare checks as early as Aug. 1 as a result of "full family sanctions" proposed by the state Department of Human Services.

Under the proposed changes, welfare checks would be cut off from entire families after 24 months if an adult eligible for work doesn't find a job or meet other definitions of "work criteria."

The first effect would be felt by families who have received assistance since July 1, 1997.

Social service agencies warn that the new requirements could impact many of Hawaii's welfare families and even force some people into homelessness. Some critics think there simply aren't enough paid or volunteer jobs to meet a sudden demand, particularly in the summer when the job market is flooded with students.

Federal legislation signed into law in 1996 by President Clinton set a lifetime limit of five years of welfare for each family and required able-bodied adults to work after two years of welfare.

Currently, an adult in Hawaii who uses up 24 months of eligibility without finding employment, training or education is cut off individually from the welfare rolls.

But the proposed changes to the First-to-Work program would make the penalty stiffer by terminating assistance to all members of the work-eligible adult's family.

"The full family sanction is the department's choice," said Kristine Foster, financial assistant in the department's Benefit, Employment and Support Services Division. "The federal requirement is they have to be participating in a work activity in the 25th month. It's up to the state to determine the sanction."


Bullet What: A public hearing by the Department of Human Services.
Bullet When: 1 p.m. tomorrow.
Bullet Where: Fourth floor of the Queen Liliuokalani Building.
Bullet Topic: Proposed welfare changes that would remove entire families from the rolls after 24 months if an adult eligible for work doesn't find a job or meet other definitions of "work criteria." The first cuts would hit Aug. 1.

Kathleen Hasegawa, executive director of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, said the impact could be devastating for the children in families that lose their welfare benefits.

"The welfare cash benefit serves as the primary method of paying rent for families on welfare," Hasegawa said. "Since there is no back payment, even for families who respond immediately when their payment is cut off, there is no way for them to make up back rent and keep the family stable."

The new rules would most immediately impact people who have been on welfare for two years.

To keep their benefits, those now in the state's First-to-Work program would need to be employed at least 32 hours a month, of which 12 hours can be in the classroom as a student, Foster said.

Those on the waiting list to get into the program and who are not employed or active in work training would need to meet a "work activity" of at least four hours a month. Work activity can be fulfilled through either paid work, volunteer work, schooling or proof of job search.

Foster estimated some 6,000 families will hit the 25-month threshold in July, meaning they could lose their benefits Aug. 1.

There are 23,886 families receiving welfare assistance in the state, Foster said. In about 10,000 of those families, adults are not required to work and would be exempt from the sanctions because they are either disabled, caring for young infants, sick family members, or are 60 years or older.

The average family of three receiving welfare in the state gets about $575 a month in benefits. That does not include food stamps or medical assistance, which would not be affected by the proposed changes.

Some social service officials are worried about the proposed policies.

Hasegawa said some people working 40 hours a week might not think the requirements are too much to ask. However, she said, there are a number of reasons why people might fail to respond and risk losing their family's benefits.


"I think some welfare
recipients don't think it's
going to happen."

Ruby Hargrave
On notices From the Human Services
Department regarding the proposed cuts.


"They may have learning disabilities, they be illiterate, they may be immigrants," Hasegawa said. "There may be various reasons why they may not understand the policy to begin with."

Ruby Hargrave, executive director of the Hawaii Community Assistance Program, said others might just ignore the notices that have been coming in the mail from the Human Services Department.

The agency "is going all out trying to tell people this needs to be done," Hargrave said. "But I think some welfare recipients don't think it's going to happen."

Also worrying social service advocates is the number of jobs that will be available to recipients.

"The agencies (that take volunteers) are going to be inundated," Hargrave predicted.

It has already happened, to some extent.

Danette Rayford, a Hawaii Community Assistance official in Waianae, said her program was deluged with more than 100 calls after a recent radio discussion of the proposed rules.

Rayford said she stopped taking applications for 4-hour-a-month volunteers after accepting eight people. The eight help out with food distribution on Tuesdays.

Rayford said she and others will suggest that the state consider holding off on imposing the sanctions "and have the communities decide how best to service these families."

Rayford and others said the problem will be acute in Waianae, Hilo, on Molokai and in other areas where unemployment is high.

"We're concerned about the lack of any concerted effort to find volunteer slots or jobs for these folks," said Angela Lovitt, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii.

June Shimokawa, executive director for the nonprofit American Friends Service Committee, looking at the larger picture, blamed state officials for not improving the economy.

"You have families who are wanting employment so they can earn a living wage, and we are not creating the jobs," she said.

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