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Rules Keep Welfare Aid Unspent

June 2, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Ana Osegueda spends her days helping move people in San Francisco from welfare to work, but she sends only a handful of clients through the federal government’s welfare-to-work program.

The $3 billion program was meant to help people with the toughest problems _ people who may have been left in dire straits by strict new welfare rules. But rigid rules about who is eligible, combined with other problems, have left some 92 percent of the first year’s money unspent after a year and a half.

``It’s really hard to find someone checking `yes’ in all those boxes,″ Osegueda said.

That’s been the case across the country. Michigan, one of the first states to get its money, hasn’t spent a dime due to strict rules. In New York City, where most long-term welfare recipients live, there is no one enrolled.

``This is depressingly slow considering it started so long ago, but usually once these things start moving, they start moving,″ said John Twomey, who runs an umbrella group for county boards in New York that distribute the federal money.

Clinton administration officials are asking Congress to change the rules so more people can qualify. They also want an additional $1 billion in 2000.

But local welfare directors are urging Congress to spend the money elsewhere. And at least one key lawmaker agrees.

``We’re certainly not going to put more money into it, because it’s not working,″ said Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., who chairs the House Ways and Means welfare subcommittee.

Johnson predicted, however, that Congress will change the rules to make it easier for more people to qualify, particularly low-income fathers of children on welfare.

Officials in the states and at the Labor Department, which runs the program, cite several problems, including bureaucratic delays getting it started as well as the eligibility rules.

To participate, most recipients must have spent at least 2 1/2 years on welfare or must be nearing their lifetime limit for benefits. They must also have two of three other problems: substance abuse, a poor work history and low educational skills _ defined as no high school diploma plus poor reading ability.

That means someone who has been on welfare for five years, has a drug problem and can’t read wouldn’t qualify if they graduated from high school.

``If you have a high school diploma but can’t read it, we can’t serve you,″ Labor Secretary Alexis Herman complained.

Herman wants Congress to ease the eligibility rules, hoping to focus more on absentee dads. ``We can’t finish the job of welfare reform without doing more to help people who have the hardest time,″ she said.

The federal program also has run into unexpected competition from local welfare agencies.

President Clinton proposed the program in 1997 hoping to help Americans facing tough new welfare rules to find work. He and others feared those with the toughest problems would be left behind.

But, as it turned out, the new rules and the robust economy helped the welfare rolls drop faster than anyone predicted. That left states with fewer clients and more money to serve them.

The program got under way in October 1997, when the Labor Department released just over $1 billion to 44 states, plus the District of Columbia and three territories, that opted to participate. An additional half-billion was awarded directly to communities through a competition.

Through March, just $83.5 million of the state money had been spent, serving 38,705 participants. And last October, Labor got an additional $1.5 billion to distribute.

States, which must match every $2 of federal money with $1 in state money, have three years to spend the grants. What isn’t spent goes back to the federal Treasury.

There are some success stories. In Philadelphia, some 2,500 are working through the program, thanks in part to an advertising campaign that urges people to ask their caseworkers about the federal assistance.

Phylis Kelley had been on welfare for five years when she and her 3-year-old son saw an ad. He asked if she had a job, and Kelley was embarrassed by the answer.

``I didn’t have answers for him, much less myself,″ she said.

She found this program different from others she’d tried. An employment adviser helped her arrange child care, set up transportation and buy work clothes _ and promised to stick with Kelley for a year, helping address whatever problems arose.

Kelley is now making $8.75 per hour as a receptionist.

``I had no idea how many jobs were available,″ she said. ``Who knew it would be this easy?″

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