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Ballot initiative on welfare would harm children, analyst finds
STANFORD -- A welfare reform proposal on California's November ballot would substantially harm the great majority of the state's poor children without achieving the reforms proponents claim, says Stanford University Law Professor Michael S. Wald, the author of a new analysis for the Stanford Center for the Study of Families, Children and Youth.
Although there is a need for welfare reforms to help recipients become self-sufficient, the proposals in Proposition 165 will not achieve these goals, Wald concluded.
Proposition 165, sponsored by Gov. Pete Wilson, would cut benefits by more than 20 percent for the majority of families now receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Wald said. It will hurt babies and toddlers the most, followed by children whose parents are least able to earn enough per hour to supply children's basic needs.
"This is the only proposal ever that would force mothers of infants to work without adequate childcare," he said. "Inadequate childcare is dangerous to all children, but it is terrible for babies. They require the most attention, and they do not do very well when they are shuffled around from one adult to another, which is what is likely to happen when their mothers can't afford to pay for high- priced infant care."
The precise number of children who will be seriously harmed by the initiative is impossible to calculate, Wald said, "but we know there will be more accidents, more homelessness, some increase in deaths, and many more untreated but consistent disabilities, such as earaches and headaches."
Wald estimated that more than half of the children's parents will not be able to earn enough to make up for the lost income. The reduction will force many of them to move to more dangerous housing and neighborhoods. One study in Santa Clara County found that 3,000 AFDC families there would have their grants reduced to an amount below what they now pay for rent, he said.
"Poor children already face a five times greater risk of dying by fire than middle-class children because of the conditions in which they live," Wald said. "As their mothers try to work whatever job they can find, there will be more 7-year-olds left home alone at night with faulty wiring, and more small children left with adults that their parents would prefer not to trust."
"I can't say that next year five more kids will die by fire or that 200 more will be seriously injured if this proposal passes, but all the studies tell us that more kids will be injured, more will die."
Countless studies on education and poverty indicate that children will fall further behind in school, he added, and more will be victims of child abuse.
"It's harder for parents to care for their children when they are under financial stress, and there will be even more pressure on these parents to raise income beyond their abilities to get jobs," he said.
An expert on how laws impact children, Wald previously has been involved in drafting state and federal legislation on children's welfare, including laws establishing California's system for dealing with child abuse and neglect, and the federal Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980. His analysis of the November ballot proposal is the first recent study of how children are affected by welfare programs, which are undergoing budget- cutting in many states.
Ballot arguments for Proposition 165 imply that its provisions are designed to get long-time, able-bodied adults off the program, he said, but the initiative has no provisions targeted to do that.
Between 50 and 60 percent of AFDC families leave the program within a year, Wald said. Those parents who stay on longer have limited education, job skills and lack of affordable childcare. They are the least likely of all to be forced off by a benefits cut.
"Most will not be able to find work unless they receive further education and training," he said. "A parent with even modest childcare costs would have to work at least 20 hours a week at $5 an hour to make up the benefit reduction."
Wald noted that the National Commission on Children found that "AFDC fails to meet most families' minimum economic needs." The failure to take care of children's economic needs "inevitably leads to other social ills - more crime and delinquency, more teenage childbearing, more unhealthy babies, more child abuse and neglect, and lower productivity among the working-age population," the commission concluded.
In California, AFDC provides grants to 1. 6 million California children, including 200,000 infants, and 700,000 parents or other adults who care for them. The case load represents approximately 7 percent of the state's population and has grown during the recession, especially in the category of two-parent families that are not covered by unemployment insurance.
Because of increases in divorce, poverty and numbers of single mothers, Wald said it is estimated that 25 to 30 percent of the nation's children will receive AFDC at some point before they reach age 18.
The core of the proposal is a reduction in current benefits for virtually all families. The maximum annual support for a family of three, which is the average size of AFDC families, would drop from $10,200 to $9,012 (after the family has received support for six months).
Also, babies born to mothers already receiving AFDC for other children would not be covered at all for the first two years of life, and teenage mothers would have their benefits reduced if they did not attend school, or cut entirely if they did not live with their parents.
The lower benefit amount is 20 percent below the poverty line, the federal standard for the minimum income needed to meet the basic needs of children. In public opinion polls, Californians say it is about half of what is necessary to minimally provide for a family in their state. The Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means recently concluded that people with incomes at the poverty line often do not have enough money for basic survival.
Gov. Wilson has suggested that parents can make up the benefit reduction by working 10 hours a week, but Wald found that "at least half" of all recipient families will not be able to find work, or find work that pays well enough to replace the reduced benefits when childcare costs are taken into account.
"This reduction in income, therefore, will negatively affect their children's physical health, achievement and well-being," he said.
Under the current law, AFDC parents are required to seek employment, education or job training; however, the law exempts mothers from the mandatory requirement until their youngest child is three. Proposition 165 would eliminate this exemption.
Wald said that the benefits cuts also might undermine California's relatively new mandatory work-or-train program for AFDC parents known as GAIN - the Greater Avenues for Independence Program. Because benefit reductions would apply even to parents in those programs, Wald said, many may find they can't afford to forgo a low-paying job temporarily to take training that would lead to a better-paying job later.
"As a result, even parents who can find employment will not be able to earn enough to provide adequate food, clothing and shelter for their children," he said. "Research indicates that it is poverty, not welfare receipt, that harms children."
A small percentage of children - "not more than 5 percent to 10 percent" - will be helped, because some working families will be able to increase the total income they receive from work plus AFDC, Wald said. The initiative includes a rule change that allows parents to have a portion of their earnings disregarded indefinitely in calculating the amount of a grant. Currently, these earnings are disregarded for only four months.
Proposals in the proposition that are intended to make sure teen mothers finish high school, Wald said, "may actually be counterproductive, as laudatory as the goal may be. Based on early evaluations of similar programs in Wisconsin and Ohio, sanction programs against teens do not increase school attendance and are expensive" both in dollars and administrative time.
"Schools would have to provide records on registration, excused absences and unexcused absences," he said. A recent University of Wisconsin study found more than 16,000 errors in records on age and school attendance, and a state audit in Milwaukee County found improper reductions of welfare benefits for more than 1,100 families.
In California, 1.8 percent of AFDC parents are under 18 and 5.9 percent are 18 or 19. (The average age is 29.)
"In sum, it is clear that the number of children harmed will greatly exceed the number helped under the approach to welfare reform taken in the initiative," he said.
AFDC programs should have strategies for reducing the length of time aid is needed, Wald said, but those strategies should try to avoid jeopardizing children's well-being in the process.
"The core of virtually all other suggested programs is a system that combines job training, high-quality childcare and some means of ensuring that parents who work earn enough from that work to support their families at an adequate level," he said.
Other proposals also focus on the need to hold fathers responsible for child support, he said.
"In fact, California already has a program that incorporates many of these features, the GAIN program, and early evaluations of it have been favorable," Wald said.
Wald's research was supported by the Stanford Study of Families, Children and Youth, which receives grants from individuals and foundations to study the impact of public policies on children and families. For a copy of his report on welfare reform and children's well-being, write the Stanford Center for the Study of Families, Children and Youth, Margaret Jacks Hall, Stanford, CA 94305-2135. The center's telephone number is (415) 723-1706.
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