- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 21, 2000

A Florida welfare program that was one of the first to set time limits on benefits spurred people off the dole and into jobs, according to a six-year study released today.

Time limits did not as predicted by critics cause widespread or severe hardships for families, but did play a role in getting families to think of welfare as temporary and seriously seek work, concluded researchers with the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. (MDRC).

They cautioned, however, that the Florida pilot project operated under very favorable circumstances. Also, research showed that many welfare families improved their finances over time, even without time limits.

"With these new results, we are starting to get beyond the rhetoric to see the complex reality," said Gordon Berlin, senior vice president of MDRC.

Time limits which restrict the number of months a family can receive a welfare check are now common in U.S. welfare programs.

The 1996 welfare law set a five-year time limit on federal cash welfare to families. Many families will reach that limit in 2002.

Forty-two states and the District of Columbia have set their own time limits, with 17 states setting limits of less than five years, the MDRC said.

The Family Transition Program (FTP) in Pensacola, Fla., which operated between 1994 and 1999, was the first program in the nation to set and enforce time limits.

Most FTP families were allowed two years of welfare benefits during a five-year period, while other FTP families, deemed hard-to-employ, were allowed three years of benefits over a six-year period.

All FTP families were required to be in work-related activities at least 30 hours a week. They were also given an array of services, supports and financial incentives, worth around $8,000 per person over five years, to help them find and keep jobs, MDRC said.

For the study, welfare families were randomly assigned to the FTP or the old, unlimited welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). MDRC researchers followed about 1,400 parents in each group for four years. They found that:

• More than three-fourths of FTP parents left welfare before they used all their welfare months.

• Only 6 percent of FTP families stayed on welfare for a long time three out of four years. In comparison, 17 percent of AFDC families had extended welfare stays.

• FTP parents did better financially, averaging $1,500 more than AFDC parents after five years. However, by the end of the fourth year, families from both groups were likely to be working and had similar average incomes. The average hourly income was $6.90.

Overall, FTP families were less likely to report housing problems and more likely to say they had enough money to make ends meet.

But moving off welfare was tough for both groups: Many reported at least once that they didn't have money for rent or had their phone disconnected.

More than 200 FTP parents hit their limit and lost their benefits. MDRC researchers tracked these families and found that only 40 percent worked steadily after welfare.

However, very few experienced severe hardships, such as homelessness, said MDRC researcher Dan Bloom. Instead, "we saw that there was some kind of safety net there public programs, like food stamps and housing food banks, family and friends," he said.

Today's report was the final evaluation of the six-year study.

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