- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

A sound city economy and overhauled welfare system helped more Philadelphia low-income mothers leave welfare for work in record time, a study released today shows.

In the mid-1990s, “circumstances in Philadelphia could not have been better for welfare reform,” said Gordon Berlin, senior vice president for the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. (MDRC), which studies “big city” welfare reforms.

The growing economy and vigorous welfare-to-work services included in the 1996 welfare reform bill led to sharp differences in the welfare rolls, even though Philadelphia, like other big cities, has “previously appeared impervious to change,” Mr. Berlin said.

Figures show that in 1999 27 percent of new welfare cases closed within six months and 55 percent of recipients who found jobs were still at work a year later. In 1993, 18 percent of welfare recipients had left the rolls in six months and 39 percent of former recipients had their jobs a year later.

The data also showed that fewer Philadelphia parents sought welfare: In July 1999, 435 welfare cases were opened, compared with the about 1,000 cases that opened each month in 1993.

Despite these improvements, researchers who studied case files of more than 500,000 welfare recipients between 1992 and 2001 concluded that Philadelphia’s welfare reform was only a qualified success.

Work was unstable for many welfare parents — two-thirds of them said they had worked 36 months out of the past 48 months. This implies that Pennsylvania’s reforms were pushing some recipients into the work force before they were ready, researchers said.

Poverty and hardship also persisted, despite higher earnings.

The researchers focused on the most disadvantaged welfare mothers. They found that by 2001, 70 percent of them had jobs and were off cash assistance. Their average hourly wages climbed from $7.20 in 1998 to $8.60 in 2001 and their average monthly income rose 30 percent, or $1,771.

But 50 percent of these women still lived at or below the poverty line and reported problems with paying rent or getting dental care for their children.

The Bush administration has called for tougher work-participation rules, and welfare bills passed by the House and Senate finance committees require at least 24 hours of work a week from welfare parents.

Mr. Berlin said tougher work rules will be “a heavy haul” for big cities — even in the 1990s, he said, Philadelphia wouldn’t have been able to meet Congress’ new participation rates and work hours.

But, he said, “the fact that they still have a long way to go doesn’t mean that if the federal bill challenges them to do better, they won’t be able to do so.”

MDRC, which has a long history of studying welfare reform, also has issued a report on Cleveland and is working on similar studies in Miami and Los Angeles.

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