Cindy Haag, director of the Assistance Payments Administration of the Department of Social Services, is very nearly ecstatic over passage of the first major welfare reform bill in more than 50 years.
"The Family Support Act fits Utah to a T in terms of what we've been doing," she told lawmakers last week.Not everyone's as excited as Haag, but the consensus among low-income advocates seems to be this: After waiting for years for someone to come up with a plan to overhaul the system - and after several false starts - this legislation has some real strengths.
The Family Support Act of 1988, which was recently signed by President Reagan, aims to reduce long-term dependency by helping recipients find jobs and by getting rid of some of the so-called disincentives to employment.
Most of the people I talk to who are on welfare say they want to work. But they are terrified of losing what little medical protection they have - Medicaid - if they leave welfare, but aren't offered a health plan or don't make enough money to afford insurance. Others say the money they'd make in low-paying jobs would be completely devoured by child care costs.
Those are two of the major disincentives the act is trying to conquer.
The act will build the Medicaid bridge a young woman asked me for nearly a year ago. Reggie told me that she was educated and wanted to work, but her two young daughters had expensive medical problems. So instead of working, she stayed on AFDC to get medication and treatment for the girls.
The "bridge," effective April 1, 1990, will provide 12 months of Medicaid coverage to AFDC recipients who become employed. States have the option of charging an income-related premium for the coverage.
It will also provide for 12 months of day care, which the parent would pay for on a sliding-fee schedule based on income.
Killing the disincentives to working is crucial to the act, because the ultimate goal of everything in it is to help people become self-sufficient. The bottom line is to get people who can work to work.
JOBS - the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills - component will be used in each state to train, educate and employ recipients. Everyone who has children over age 3 will have to participate in the effort. In return, the government willhelp pay for child care and work expenses. Between October 1989 and September 1990, 7 percent of welfare recipients have to be phased into the program. The number increases as time goes on.
In return for working, the government will disregard $90 in earned income each month when calculating eligibility to AFDC. It will also increase the amount of money it pays for day care for children, which should make day care easier to find and allow the parent to be more particular when choosing a provider.
The act has a built-in list of target populations. It aims to reach custodial parents 24 or younger who dropped out of school before graduating or have little or no work experience. Time has shown that this group is likely to be on assistance for longer periods of time than those who have diplomas and/or experience in the work world.
Another target group are women whose youngest child is 16. They need special attention now, because in a year or so, they will no longer be eligible for public assistance and they must develop survival skills - particularly if they have always depended on someone or on "the system."
People who have been on assistance for more than three of the past five years are also targeted. They have already become accustomed to being on assistance for long periods of time, and those who are accustomed to it tend to stay on longer.
Volunteers will be served first. Those who want to participate will get to participate.
But eventually, everyone will have certain responsibilities in exchange for their benefits, with the exception of those who for some physical or mental reason are unable to be self-sufficient.
It'll be a while before anyone can really judge how well the national welfare reform is working.
I'm optimistic. This act may need some finetuning as it's implemented.
But I think it's very encouraging that something is being done - after 53 years - about a group of people and a system we cannot and should not ignore.