Prof: Welfare underserves women, people with mental health issues

BY CAITLIN SCHNEIDER
Daily Staff Reporter
Published December 2, 2008

During a talk on campus Tuesday, welfare policy expert Sheldon Danziger said the nation's recession could put much-needed government assistance reforms in jeopardy.

Angela Cesere / Daily

Danziger, director of the National Poverty Center and a professor in the Ford School of Public Policy, began his lecture with a brief overview of the welfare system in the United States. He devoted particular attention to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, more commonly known as “welfare to work,” which ended the automatic right to cash assistance for poor single mothers and mandated work participation for aid recipients.

The 1996 reforms sought to encourage personal initiative and prevent people from relying completely on monetary government assistance. Danziger said he opposed the policy when it was first proposed and expected increased poverty in a "post-welfare world." He said he has since changed his stance.

"In general, the 1996 reform was much less negative than I thought and in fact, was probably a good thing," Danziger said.

Increased employment rates were hard for Danziger to argue with, and while he admits he was wrong about the reform on a broad scale, flaws still exist. Danziger presented results from his "Women's Employment Study," which focused on mental health issues among single-parent women on welfare. These women represented a population of what Danziger calls "disconnected" people — individuals who often get lost in the system.

"Unless your disabilities are so severe that you can qualify for Supplemental Security Income, you will find yourself with no work and no welfare," Danziger said. "That's the new post-welfare situation."

In the study, which Danziger conducted from 1997 to 2003, he asked women to identify "barriers", that prevented them from working like limited work experience, learning disabilities, drug or alcohol abuse, domestic abuse and mental health disorders.

Danziger told the audience of about 50 people that the results were striking. Among those interviewed, he said, nearly 70 percent identified at least one barrier and almost half claimed two or more.

"The bottom line is we've learned a lot about the mental health problems that affect a substantial minority of welfare recipients," he said.

Danziger said that while the 1996 reform decreased the number of Americans living in poverty, welfare policy must be adjusted to more in need.

"One would hope that some attention would be paid on the women falling through the cracks,” he said. “In the current economic environment, this is clearly not a top policy priority."

Danziger said he doesn't foresee a return to the cash welfare entitlement of 1936 to 1996, but he believes welfare agencies should screen recipients who have trouble finding and keeping jobs. These screenings should include health and mental health tests and opportunities for assistance, he said.

During the talk, he also voiced support of higher minimum wage, expanded earned income tax credit and state children's health insurance program, all of which President-elect Barack Obama has called priorities for his incoming administration.

Rackham student Heidi Kaplan, who said she attended the lecture because she's interested in the topic of welfare reform, said the lecture changed her opinion on the topic.

"The results were surprising," she said. "I felt really uneducated. The Welfare to Work program actually put people back to work to a degree. Frankly, I had thought it was a damaging program, and as a public policy student I'm kind of dismayed I was not more aware."