JEFFERSON CITY - While Missouri is having an unprecendented reduction in Missouri's welfare caseloads on the eve of the federal time-limit for welfare, one former recipient says that those getting off welfare still face significant hardships.
Helen Nickens, 50, of Mexico is experiencing the economic squeeze that often follows recipients who have made the transition from welfare to work.
For eight months, Nickens had been a recipient of TANF -- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Under the federal "welfare reform" law, TANF is the program that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
Nickens said she is not better off since leaving TANF simply because she found a job.
"I love cashing a paycheck every week, but things are just not adding up," Nickens said. "I earn six dollars an hour and I'm still in poverty. I have no safety net."
Under the current legislation, two thirds of the earned income of a TANF leaver is disregarded for one year. However, the time limit clock runs while the money is being disregarded. Nickens said that she did not take advantage of this since she may need to use that year in the future.
Nickens said that she knows many former TANF recipients find themselves in dire economic straights.
"A lot are in my position," said Nickens.
Nickens is one of more than 134,000 Missourians who have gone off welfare since 1993. Approximately 2300 more will follow in July when the first wave of recipients will have reached the federal-imposed life-time timelime for welfare of five years. An estimated 200-400 are expected to reach their limits each month after July.
While the parent will lose assistance, the state will continue paying that portion of the TANF benefits intended for the child.
Legislators and social service experts have cited a number of potential reasons for the large drop in Missouri's welfare caseload before the mandatory cut-off -- including a robust economy and state job-training efforts for welfare recipients.
Peter De Simone, executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, said that the dramatic drop in the number of cases has led to a steady increase in the number of working class poor.
"The Department of Social Services is bragging about all the people who have left welfare, but it's only a body count."
De Simone said that the philosophy of the welfare reform policy needs to change to focus not only on work, but also on the well-being of former TANF recipients. He also emphasized the importance of focusing not just on work but on other opportunities, such as college education, that are available to recipients of TANF.
"Poor communication between case workers and TANF recipients is a problem," De Simone said.
Robin Acre, Director of GRO, a nonprofit organization that gives voice to individuals and communities affected by most specifically welfare reform, made the point that the welfare reform legislation was written during a time when the economy was flourishing.
According to Acre, it will be during a recession that the myth of welfare reform success will be revealed.
"In the event of an economic recession, there are no cash assistance programs in place to assist those who have reached their limits, but cannot find work, Acre said. They need to put back some kind of safety net for those who have reached their limits."
According to Connie Ward, Unit Manager for the state Family Services Division that administers TANF, individuals who have reached their limits can still apply for Medicaid, food stamps and child care assistance, but no cash assistance.
"You can't pay your bills without cash assistance, Acre said. The rent and utility bills only take cash."
"We're in the process of developing criteria to extend TANF benefits for those who have reached their time limits," said Ward.
That will be for just 20 precent of those who have reached their time limits.
"If no income is coming in, what pays the bills," said Acre.
I don't think the public realizes what's going on," Nickens said. "We'll be in poverty forever if no one changes things."