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The broken promise of welfare reform

The swift and sweeping process used to enact historic state budget cuts has hidden major policy shifts affecting the state’s safety net for families with children. Virtually overnight, our elected officials gutted programs and policies developed with conscientious public debate, careful deliberation and clear purpose. At a time when Arizona has lost 315,000 jobs – an 11.6 percent reduction in employment – these drastic changes in public assistance policies have resulted in little or no help to struggling families that will lead to greater dependency and increased costs.

In 1996, the Republican Congress and Democratic president “ended welfare as we knew it” by enacting the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PWORA) of 1996. The agreement, crafted with the involvement of state governors, eliminated the entitlement to assistance and capped state funds in exchange for flexibility. States now simply had to meet broad goals for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) funding.

The reform of welfare was built on a solid rationale: prevent families from entering welfare, provide a hand up not a hand out, and avoid dependence by providing job training and placement, child care and other supports. There was an implicit promise to poor families: Work hard and play by the rules, and government will provide supportive services to help you move to self-sufficiency.

Arizona was a leader in welfare reform and set policy after rigorous analysis, exhaustive public debate, and testimony from poor families, community leaders and agency administrators. In 1997, principled conservatives, working with both parties, crafted an Arizona plan that encouraged personal responsibility, required work activities, provided support services, set time limits for assistance, significantly increased funding for child care and tested new approaches.

That process stands in sharp contrast to how decisions have been adopted over the past 15 months. Policy and budget decisions were made without work sessions to define program goals or establish objectives and outcomes. Appropriation committees took perfunctory public input after the votes were counted. “Lump sum” reductions left the tough decisions to the executive, allowing legislators to avoid responsibility and leaving agency administrators few choices.

The result? A broken promise.

Thirteen years after welfare reform, at the very time when it is most needed, Arizona has never spent less on getting families back to work. Employment training was cut by 44 percent. Child care is being cut by 50 percent overall. What about those who have a job and are working hard to stay off welfare? Their child care is being cut by 75 percent. The state cut the stipend families live on by 20 percent and now has enacted a new 36-month lifetime limit, retroactively. How can you play by the rules if they are constantly changing? As a result of these changes, 10,000 fewer families with 17,000 children will receive cash assistance on July 1.

Our state’s unprecedented revenue crisis requires thoughtful, cost effective and compassionate responses. The broken promise goes beyond welfare policy – these families hold promise. With reasonable expectations and investments, poor families can get a job and support their children. We call upon state leaders to conduct a thorough and open review of the impacts of safety-net cuts and identify options for continuing to pay for programs that provide basic needs and promote dignity and self-sufficiency.

— Bruce Liggett is a former DES child care administrator and deputy director and is now director of the Arizona Child Care Association.

— Jodi Beckley Liggett staffed the House Block Grants Committee, was policy adviser for human services for Gov. Jane Hull, and is the chief operating officer for the Arizona Foundation for Women.

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