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    Former welfare recipients may receive help

    The idea of supplementing the wages of former welfare recipients is considered unique in the United States.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2001

    TALLAHASSEE -- Five years after national welfare reforms pushed people off welfare and into jobs, most former welfare recipients still live in poverty, studies show.

    Friday, the Florida Legislature moved to do something about it.

    Forging a new path in welfare reform, the state Senate approved legislation that would increase temporary cash assistance payments to poor families; broaden "transition" benefits, such as education and transportation, that help former welfare recipients acquire skills and get good jobs; and supplement the wages of former welfare recipients to boost their family incomes.

    The state House gave preliminary approval to similar legislation on Friday.

    The new benefits, part of bills sponsored by state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and state Rep. Johnnie Byrd Jr., R-Plant City, would start in pilot programs in Hillsborough and Manatee counties. Recent estimates show that 1,051 people would be affected in Hillsborough and 190 people in Manatee. If the pilot programs work, the state would look to expand the benefits statewide.

    "This points to kind of the new goal and one of the new areas of welfare reform: Now that a lot of people are working, how do we move people up the ladder," said Don Winstead, welfare reform administrator at the state Department of Children and Families. "This is the first effort by the Legislature to really address that."

    Minnesota, Connecticut and Canada have some of the same programs to try to lift families out of poverty. But the idea of supplementing the wages of former welfare recipients is considered unique in the United States, Winstead said.

    Under the legislation approved in the Senate on Friday, former welfare recipients would get enough money from the state to bring their family incomes up to 100 percent of the federal poverty level. Individuals would have to be employed at least 32 hours a week, be a former recipient of temporary cash assistance and meet other qualifications.

    The legislation also expands from two to four years the time that the state will provide support services, such as child care, education and transportation, to former welfare recipients. The state would spend about $3.5-million on the expanded benefits.

    The legislation has gotten little attention this legislative session. Lee said he has been low-key about it. He decided to pursue the legislation after reading last summer about a similar expansion of benefits in Minnesota.

    A analysis of the bill by legislative staff states that studies have shown that the welfare-to-work program has done little to lift people out of poverty. Since welfare reform was implemented statewide in 1996, the number of welfare cases has decreased by more than 120,000 families. "However, the income earned by these families leaves most of them (92 percent) at or below the federal poverty level," the analysis states.

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