In Oregon, Welfare To Work Means Less of the Same

In Oregon, the faces of welfare-to-work programs are overwhelmingly those of single mothers in their 20s and 30s. A new report says their jobs don't cover their family's needs and their families are still going hungry and becoming homeless.

Sandra Morgen

PORTLAND, Ore. (WOMENSENEWS)-The first statewide survey of Oregon's so-called welfare reform has found that two years after unemployed welfare recipients-even mothers of tiny infants-were required to find paying jobs, their families were still poor, skipping meals and going without medical care.

Of the adults surveyed, 92 percent of those leaving welfare were single women with children. And 85 percent of the adults who stopped receiving food stamps were women also heading households. These are similar to the national profiles of welfare and food stamp recipients.

Here are some of the key findings of the report:

  • Two out of three surveyed had jobs that paid them about $1,000 a month, meaning their family's incomes remained below the federal poverty guidelines. For a family of three, the federal poverty line is $14,150 a year. For a family of four, it is $17,050.
  • Among families leaving welfare, one-fifth skipped meals sometime during the survey because they couldn't afford food. And 47 percent of the adults who stopped receiving food stamps went to food banks or soup kitchens, instead.
  • Of the adults leaving welfare for paid employment, 41 percent had jobs that did not offer health insurance as a benefit and 50 percent had jobs that provided no sick leave.

  • Most people who found work received incremental pay raises of 20 cents to 30 cents an hour. But the benefits of the small pay raises were canceled out because even their slightly higher wages disqualified them for state subsidized child care and the Oregon Health Plan.
  • Half the single parents surveyed were living in poverty in part because child support payments were not made regularly.

Perhaps, most startling for proponents of welfare reform, few people entirely left public assistance, even during those good economic times.

  • Of those surveyed, 90 percent of welfare recipients still received food stamps and 85 percent of the people who stopped receiving food stamps returned to the food stamp program at times during the two-year survey.
  • 87 percent of those who left public assistance stayed on the Oregon Health Plan, a nationally recognized state-operated health insurance program for the currently poor.
  • Many of the one-third of the adults surveyed who didn't find paid employment were mothers of small children. Others were people with disabilities and still others lived in the state's rural areas and small towns where there weren't many jobs.

“A lot of mothers wanted to stay home with children, and that's not okay in Oregon if your child is more than 3 months old,” says lead researcher Sandra Morgen. “If there is any way for some mothers to stay home with children, they will. Or they will chose to work in crummy jobs to coordinate with their children's school schedules.”

The two-year study, released this month, was conducted by the University of Oregon's Center for the Study of Women and Society. In 1998 and 1999, researchers tracked 970 adults, the vast majority of them single mothers in their 20s and 30s who had recently stopped receiving either welfare or food stamps.

This is one of a number of reports on state welfare reform outcomes as the national five-year authorization for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families-the new name for welfare-comes up for Congressional review and reauthorization this year. Overall, welfare rolls are declining, but those who have left welfare are not always much better off, these reports indicate.

Oregon is a case in point.

Oregon's Reform Boosted by Booming Economy

Oregon's welfare reform started in 1994, two years before Congress and President Clinton hammered out a national welfare reform deal. Since then, the Oregon Adult and Family Services Department has cut its public assistance caseload from 48,000 in the early 1990s to 17,000 today.

The federal money for the welfare programs was immediately shifted into programs that helped people on welfare find other jobs. And welfare reform got an unexpected boost from the state's economy, which coincidentally heated up in the middle to late 1990s. With record low unemployment rates in those years, most people leaving welfare were able to get jobs, even if they were not well-paying.

“These are hard working people,” says lead researcher Sandra Morgen. “They were highly motivated to work, almost eager. . . .” However, Morgen emphasized that even if the job pays $8 an hour, after transportation and child care costs, the head of a family in Oregon will not take home a paycheck large enough to make ends meet.

And a slow down is underway. Already housing costs have leveled off. And the layoffs are beginning to occur in Portland's manufacturing sectors. Morgen hopes that the study will help Oregon leaders understand the challenges faced by the poor even in good times, and perhaps anticipate the potential requirements in bad times.

Portland Named Best Place To Live; Oregon Most Food Insecure State

Ironically, Oregon, a state with 3.4 million people and with just one large city, Portland, was nationally recognized recently for both economic success and failure.

Last December, Money Magazine celebrated Portland as the best place in the country to live. And maybe it was-for those who could buy a house with a view of the scenic beauty, visit the coffee and book shops and work in the high-tech industry, nicknamed the Silicon Forest.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in a lesser known survey released in 1999, rated Oregon No. 1 on an index of “food insecurity.” The survey found that Oregon's poor were the most likely to face hunger, largely because housing costs were so high that they couldn't afford to buy food. The cost of renting apartments and buying houses nearly doubled here in the middle 1990s when the population was dramatically growing and the middle class job market was also expanding. As a result, even with a higher than average minimum wage, $6.50 an hour, the working poor could not keep up with housing prices.

Although the survey found that many people leaving welfare for work still qualified for federal, state and local rental assistance programs — those who didn't spent more than half their incomes on housing.

Welfare Reform Means Rush on Charities, Food Banks, Free Clinics

Most of the people surveyed said they avoided treatment for medical problems as long as possible. But large unpaid medical emergency bills were one of the leading causes of debt among people surveyed.

The survey also confirmed reports from Oregon charities, food banks and free medical clinics of huge increases in their caseloads in the years since welfare reform began.

“What this state needs is a higher percentage of decently paying jobs,” Morgen said. “Until that happens, the working poor will continue to have trouble making ends meet.”

One-quarter of those surveyed had their telephones disconnected because they couldn't pay the bill, and one-fifth was late in paying household bills. A few were evicted from their apartments.

Despite the state's job readiness program, most of the people leaving welfare did not have sufficient opportunity to advance their education, whether that meant obtaining a graduate equivalency degree or receiving vocational training. In the survey, 88 percent said they wanted more education.

Morgen said that politicians, who make decisions to cut public assistance programs, should better understood the family values they share with welfare recipients.

“They want the same things for their own children,” Morgen said. “They don't have a different set of motivations. They don't have a different set of dreams. But they do have different starting lines.”

K. M. Briggs is a reporter and writer who lives in Portland, Ore.