Sasha Mandel says she never imagined going on welfare. But her plans for a career and the independence she craved ran headlong into a pair of unforeseen developments -- an unplanned pregnancy at 18, and the worst job market since the Great Depression.
In April 2009, freshly unemployed and devoid of savings, Mandel reluctantly walked into a state office in Phoenix to apply for welfare. Her caseworker was sympathetic, swiftly arranging emergency food aid along with cash assistance. But she was also clear on the limits of that relief: Under the terms of Arizona’s welfare program, Mandel could draw a welfare check for no more than three years.
That timeframe was about to get shorter. This April, cash-strapped Arizona tightened the limit on welfare payments to two years. Mandel learned about the change when she received a letter from the state in June. She was only a few weeks away from exhausting her benefits.
“That letter," she said, "it just said to me that they decided to change the rules when the game for single mothers is already really, really hard."
Fifteen years after President Clinton joined with congressional Republicans and affixed his signature to a law that “ended welfare as we know it” -- imposing a five-year time limit on federal cash assistance for poor families, while allowing states to set shorter limits -- the social safety net is failing to keep pace with the needs of struggling Americans, many experts say. Millions of single mothers are falling through the cracks, scrambling to support their families with neither paychecks nor government aid.
Welfare reform, one of the hallmark events of the Clinton presidency, was supposed to be a healthy tradeoff: Single mothers who had grown dependent on government checks would instead go out and work. The federal government gave the states lump sums of money, known as block grants, to create programs that would prepare, prompt and push poor single mothers accustomed to living on welfare into the workforce, providing job training, resume-writing tutorials and subsidized child care.
But the time limits on cash aid were enacted in the mid-1990s, in the midst of one of the most vibrant job markets in modern times. Today, with nearly 14 million people officially out of work and jobseekers outnumbering available positions by more than four-to-one, the logic of those reforms is being overwhelmed by the reality of a stark shortage of paychecks, experts say.
“Today, everybody is expected to work,” said Sheila Zedlewski, an economist at the Urban Institute and co-author of an institute study released last week that examines the consequences of welfare reform during the recession. “The problem is finding a job is incredibly hard.”
Since the beginning of the recession in late 2007, the nation’s unemployment rate has increased by 88 percent, while welfare caseloads have grown just 14 percent, according to the Urban Institute report.
Experts say this disparity reflects the inadequacy of remaining welfare programs in the face of a veritable epidemic of joblessness. During a period of national distress, fewer and fewer people have been able to secure help to meet their basic needs, according to the report.
Between 2007 and 2010 -- just as the economy was contracting and joblessness was rising, generating greater demand for public assistance -- welfare caseloads dropped in 13 states, according to the Urban Institute report. In Arizona, which faced a particularly powerful blow to its finances in the form of a sustained plunge in housing prices, the welfare caseload dropped by 48 percent during that timeframe.
Many of those who advocated for ending welfare as an unlimited entitlement say the change has been beneficial -- the share of single, never married mothers in the workforce climbed from 62.9 percent in 1996 to 72.4 percent a decade later, according to federal data.
“Poverty rates are still lower and work rates still higher than before welfare reform,” said Ron Haskins, who played a key role in shaping the policy as a senior Republican congressional adviser, and who is now co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families. “In that sense, welfare reform has been a success.”
But as Haskins acknowledges, the reforms have never managed to address the barriers confronting a small subset of welfare recipients with very limited education, significant physical and mental health problems, or unhealthy children, preventing them from entering the workforce.
The share of people who both live in poverty with no reported income and lack welfare assistance has changed significantly since welfare reform. In 1996, 1 in 8 single mothers fit this profile, according to Zedlewski. By 2008, the most recent year for which this data is available, that figure had climbed to 1 in 5, she said.
In the early days after welfare reform, many states enacted stricter time limits, Arizona included, and beefed up programs offering subsidized child care -- a crucial component for single mothers required to work. The budget crisis assailing states has prompted many states to effectively roll back these programs.
States around the country are slashing cash benefits, reducing time limits and, in some cases, imposing strict work requirements on welfare applicants, said LaDonna Pavetti, an expert on welfare who works at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The practices also make it very hard for parents already dealing with a job crisis, a disability or other complications to qualify for cash aid, she said.
In the 2000s, states also began shifting federal funds that could be used for cash benefits for single mothers to cover other costs. Some of the money went to cover the cost of child care or transportation assistance. But large shares were also used to fund state child welfare agencies, which frequently don’t get all the resources they need from states.
In 1997, the first year the reforms took effect in most states, Georgia used 73 percent of its federal welfare block grant to provide cash aid to poor families, according to data the state reported to the federal government. By 2009, the most recent year for which complete data is available, Georgia spent just 11 percent of its block grant on cash aid. Spending in Florida, Texas and Arizona plunged by similar margins.
The impact of these cuts is easy to discern: Far fewer poor families are being given cash assistance. In 2009, Georgia and Texas each provided cash aid to less than 10 percent of poor families, according to the Urban Institute report.
"You have so many people who were pushed off welfare who didn't find work in the beginning, and today there are so many people who can't get welfare at all," said Peter Edelman, a Georgetown University law professor who resigned from a senior position in the Clinton administration to protest the President's decision to sign welfare reform into law. "As an anti-recessionary tool, welfare as we know it today is useless."
Edelman compares the paltry expansion of the nation's welfare rolls during the recession -- from about 3.9 million families in 2007 to about 4.4 million families in 2010 -- to what happened to the food stamp program. During the same time period, food stamp program participation rose from about 30 million households to 44 million, reflecting real levels of economic need.
"What we've done is make things worse," Edelman said. "There are now people who cannot find work, and who can not get welfare."
INTO THE GREAT RECESSION
When Mandel walked across the stage at her high school graduation in Phoenix in the spring of 2008, she was walking into an economy that was already in the midst of a punishing downturn.
She soon managed to secure a receptionist job at a doctor’s office in a Phoenix suburb for $10 an hour. Getting there entailed riding the bus nearly two hours in each direction. But she was pleased to be employed; pleased to have what she considered a “good-paying job” for a person fresh out of high school.
Two weeks later, she found a second job in downtown Phoenix helping to organize fundraisers for a nonprofit that works with the disabled. It paid $9 an hour and involved its own hour and a half bus commute.
Mandel had survived what she described as an unstable childhood, which included a move from California to Arizona when she was 13 so that her mother could follow "some man." She spent her high school years living in a group home. The state placed her there after her mother was sent to prison, she said. (Mandel said she doesn’t remember the precise charge.)
Given that background, Mandel said she was particularly keen to establish her own household, and she was clear that money was something she was going to need. But two months after her high school graduation, Mandel found out she was pregnant. The baby’s father, her high school boyfriend, already had one child. The relationship ended before Mandel delivered. She is awaiting a court date at which she hopes he will be ordered to pay child support, she said.
In early 2009, physically drained by her long commute, she quit her suburban doctor’s office job to focus full time on her fundraising responsibilities in Phoenix. She took satisfaction in working with the disabled. But the recession took a toll on fundraising -- and in March 2009, she was laid off.
“I know they really liked me," Mandel said. "I really loved that job, but they couldn’t afford to keep me."
At the time, Mandel, who speaks in chirpy sentences punctuated by nervous laughter, was living in a drama-filled, crowded house just outside Phoenix, staying with a friend’s family. She was seven months pregnant and cognizant that competition for jobs was fierce. Yet she remained confident she would find a job.
But her spirits soon took a blow as she launched her search for work. At an interview for a restaurant job, her status as a single mother quickly emerged as a disqualifier, she said.
“The manager just told me, ‘Why would I hire you when I have like 10 people with college degrees and no children who want this job?’” she recalled. “’They aren’t going to need to leave when there is a problem with day care.’ That really opened my eyes. I didn't stop looking, but I kind of knew I might not find anything.”
Mandel applied for unemployment benefits. But as a part-time worker who had been with her past employer for less than a year, she did not qualify.
One morning in late March 2009, she went to a central Phoenix welfare office, waiting two hours for her turn to meet with a caseworker. Eight months pregnant, she lumbered into her caseworker’s paper-jammed cubicle and confronted a barrage of questions.
Where was she living? (By then, in a transitional homeless shelter.) How much money did she have in the bank? (None.) What had she done to try to find work? (Looked and looked, to no avail.) Who was the baby’s father? (A man who was working part time and could hardly pay his own bills.)
By the end of the interview, Mandel had a debit card that enabled her to immediately draw the electronic equivalent of food stamps. As far as the state was concerned, she was a woman in crisis.
The social worker explained that in a few weeks, she would begin receiving $210 per month in cash assistance.
“They told me that it would only last three years so I would have to use the time wisely,” Mandel said. “She was real clear about that.”
Since that warning, Mandel has been on so many interviews that she said she has lost count. Each one requires a bus trip -- usually half an hour or more -- or asking a friend for a ride. The sorts of jobs she is now willing to take have expanded: “Absolutely anything that’s legal and pays.”
She has had a few short-lived jobs. In the fall of 2009, Mandel secured a three-month internship with a local nonprofit helping other young people plan and execute their path to higher education. She was hired as a nanny, but two weeks later her employer lost his job and could no longer afford her time. She was nearly hired to work at a community center, but she failed the required math test.
Between jobs and failed job applications, Mandel has participated in job search and training programs assigned by her caseworker -- a requirement to keep her cash assistance and the day care voucher provided by the state of Arizona.
“I’d like to work," she said. "But it’s like, where are the jobs?”
When her welfare benefits ended in July, so did her child care voucher, putting her in the ultimate single mother catch-22: Without a job, she cannot afford child care, and without child care, how can she work?
Last week, Mandel skipped a job interview for the first time in two years because she was unable to arrange child care. Toddlers are not well received on job interviews, she said.
She was was busy moving into a new, low-cost South Phoenix apartment that the city helped her secure back when she still had her welfare benefits.
Keeping her apartment requires that she find a job in the next six weeks. She will need to cover her $468 monthly rent and her $72 cellphone bill, not to mention the cost of day care, bus passes and the inevitable clothing she has to buy for her growing 2-year-old daughter, Nevaeh.
“I’m not really sure what I can do,” she said. “I’m looking everywhere for an escape. Well, some kind of job."