Friday, August 13, 1999

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Janelle Holtz is one of the success stories from Goodwill Industries'
welfare-to-work program. Holtz is an office automation clerk at the
Coast Guard office in the federal building. Pictures of her children
Stephanie, 5, and Tristan, 3, are around her desk.

Isles struggle
to cut costs of

State and federal efforts have
helped recipients get jobs, but only
slightly fewer families are
receiving benefits

Fed miscalculates Hawaii's rolls, officials say

By Treena Shapiro


Put 'em to work, Washington said.

And Hawaii has tried, launching state reform in 1996 and adopting new federal policies the following year in an attempt to get people off welfare and into jobs. But more than 2 years later, Hawaii has seen only a slight decrease in the number of families on welfare.

The state expects to spend $24 million less in welfare benefits this year than it did in 1997, but this may owe more to reduced benefits than to recipients finding jobs. And while the cuts are supposed to steer more people toward work, they may be sending some of them to food banks and shelters instead.

The state says more people on welfare are finding work, but not the kind of jobs that will take them off welfare.

Successful transition

Janelle Holtz, 30, was on public assistance for about 14 months before she was able to get into a welfare-to-work program.

"I remember bugging my counselor about getting on this program, but she said it (selection) was random," Holtz said.

By the time Holtz was accepted into Employment Works in August 1997, a state-contracted program operated by Goodwill Industries Hawaii, she already had sent some 25 resumes, with no results.

"I had a lot of self-confidence and I really wanted to work," Holtz said.

She credits the program with teaching her how to organize her resume and improve her interviewing skills.

During her four months in the program, Holtz said she sent an average of five resumes a day, and got three job interviews.

Her first job was a part-time position as a department store photographer with no benefits.

"When you get that extra money, that check from DHS shrinks," she said. "That's kind of scary."

"But any income is good," she added. "You just work your way from there."


Holtz worked her way into a full-time position as an office automation clerk for the U.S. Coast Guard in November 1997, and was able to get off welfare. Now Holtz, who will soon be divorced from the father of her two children, is living with her parents and saving to buy a house.

But Holtz is an exception to the rule.

Last year, of 75,326 Hawaii welfare recipients, only 433 adults -- fewer than 1 percent -- found full-time work that paid enough to get their families off public assistance. Almost all of the 8,477 working recipients are in part-time jobs and still on the rolls, said Garry Kemp, assistant administrator of the state Department of Human Services Benefit Employment and Support Services.

State officials realize the difficulty that people are having getting off welfare.

"Across the country, people are still poor but are just not using assistance," said Deputy Director Kate Stanley.

Stanley said she expects that some of the recipients currently in part-time jobs will try to get by on less money when their cash assistance ends, since they would still be eligible for medical assistance, food stamps and one year of transitional child care.

Working goal

As for the rest of the welfare population, the state is continuing to improve support systems to get -- and keep -- them working.

"We need to improve their skills so they can become self-sufficient," Stanley said.

Getting these new workers employable will be a challenge, Stanley said.

This month, the state estimates that 6,000 families will be affected when 12,000 adult recipients are reviewed to see whether they found work before their July 31 deadline. Those who didn't will lose cash benefits for their whole families Sept. 1. Food stamps and medical assistance will not be affected.

The adults being reviewed have been on welfare for at least two years. Federal and state welfare reforms require that after two years, able adult recipients must be working or performing some other qualifying activity.

Activities besides work that allow recipients to keep their cash benefits are schooling, volunteer work and job training.

Hawaii has 21,500 welfare adults who are required to work, but only 6,000 slots in its work programs. Since participants remain in the program until they have worked at least 18 hours a week for 90 days, it can take awhile for an opening.

Because selection for the programs is random, some accepted into programs don't want to be there. About 1,000 people already have lost cash benefits for refusing to attend. Previously, only parents who refused to participate lost cash benefits, but now, since their children also will be affected, many have returned to the programs, Kemp said.

Joan Noguwa, director of the Voluntary Action Center, an organization that helps place volunteers in nonprofit agencies, said July was a crisis period for welfare recipients trying to meet the July 31 deadline, and more than 100 people came to the center.

But most recipients she's seen aren't ready to jump right into employment, Noguwa said. They need support systems, such as welfare-to-work programs, to help them capitalize on their skills and set goals before they hit the five-year limit on public assistance.

The center has picked up a few volunteers for their own office over the past month.

"They've been very successful," she said. "They have skills to offer."

Getting tough

Stricter state welfare restrictions are a response to federal welfare reform.

"Our welfare policy has become tougher because we want people to be able to move toward self-sufficiency when they come up against the federal deadline of five years," Stanley said.

In 1997, the federal government put a five-year lifetime limit on public assistance. All families were given a clean slate at the start of state reform in December 1996, so those that have remained on the rolls since then passed the halfway mark in June.

To remain on welfare, recipients not yet admitted to work programs must perform a minimum of four hours of volunteer work a month. The state expects most people to meet that requirement and that every unemployed and able recipient will end up in a welfare-to-work program.

Once recipients are active, their minimum commitment jumps to 32 hours a week. This can be met with a combination of paid employment, volunteer work and school, but the preference is at least 20 hours a week spent in unsubsidized, paid employment, said Kris Foster, financial assistant for the Benefit, Employment and Support Services Division.

Payments decrease

Hawaii indeed is spending less on welfare.

A five-year block grant from the federal government and the state's rising caseload forced a 20 percent benefit cut in 1997 to all welfare cases, to provide for incoming families.

"The average payment for families has decreased significantly," Foster said.

For example, in 1994, the average monthly check for all families was $662. In 1997, welfare families were split between two programs, so there's no current average for all families. However, for single-parent families, the amount dropped to $514, and the average monthly payment for a two-parent or noncitizen family is $557, Foster said.

Families were expected to make up the difference through work, Foster said.

Accordingly, the number of employed recipients has risen by almost 2,000 since the state started tracking them in 1997. Some adults required to work have found at least part-time jobs, allowing the state to cut its welfare budget by almost $2 million a month, Foster said.

Benefits paid to families dropped almost $18 million between 1997 and 1998. By the end of this year, the budget is expected to be reduced by an additional $6 million, bringing the 1999 benefit expenditure down to $147 million, compared with the 1996 high of $181 million, according to figures supplied by Foster.

Impact on support groups

Meanwhile, social service organizations are bracing for the consequences of up to 6,000 families potentially losing benefits next month.

The Institute for Human Services, which provides shelter for homeless families, already has a full house and is anticipating more arrivals when families lose their benefits Sept. 1, said Executive Director Lynn Maunakea.

"Our numbers for the families have gone up dramatically in the past three weeks," she said. "Prior to a week ago we were admitting everyone. After a week ago, we started turning people away."

Four families have been turned away so far. The IHS staff will have to make policy changes regarding eligibility and length of stay, hard decisions for a shelter that has always been inclusive, Maunakea said. "(We'll discuss) how we're going to make this work, given that even before the changes welfare reform is making, our numbers are going up."

Hawaii Foodbank President Jim Baldwin said the food bank has seen a 24 percent increase in distribution over the past year, but could not speculate on how much of that was due to welfare reform. He expects a further increase in clientele after Sept. 1.

"If welfare benefits are being reduced, they're going to have to replace it with something," he said.

Hawaii Foodbank will be a partner with the state in a welfare-to-work program. The food bank will provide job training to make participants employable and in return, the state will subsidize part of their salaries.

But the sluggish economy concerns Baldwin.

"Even if the welfare reform is successful and we get people trained and employable, there has to be jobs for them to get," he said.

"My greatest fear is that food banks across the country are going to become the food stamp program of the 21st century if the economies do not improve," Baldwin said.

Federal government
miscalculates Hawaii’s welfare
rolls, officials say

By Treena Shapiro


Hawaii's welfare rolls have not dropped by the large percentage cited by President Clinton last week, according to state Department of Human Services officials.

Art The discrepancy results from the federal government's failure to include state-funded welfare programs in its calculations. The same welfare population exists, but some have just been moved out of federal programs.

"They're comparing apples and oranges," said Kris Foster, financial assistant for the Benefit, Employment and Support Services Division.

"It's not a reduction, it's just a shift."

This is the first year Hawaii has seen a decline in welfare cases since federal and state reform began 2 years ago. The decrease is only 236 cases, though, and the total number of cases is actually higher than it was in the national peak year of 1994. March 1994 was the month used in last week's federal calculations.

When federal welfare reform began in 1997, Aid to Families with Dependent Children was eliminated and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families took its place. Federal restrictions regarding two-parent and noncitizen households prompted the state to create an additional program to service these groups and avoid paying federal penalties.

Because public assistance for these families is not funded with federal dollars, they are not included in federal calculations. The real decrease in the state's welfare caseload is about 1 percent.

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