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Caps on welfare vary around West

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Those who think Utah's 36-month maximum cap on welfare bene-fits is too strict had better stay out of Idaho. Utah's northern neighbor cuts welfare benefits after just 24 months, the harshest time limit in the Mountain West.

"The main point of the Idaho plan is work first,' said Mary Anne Saunder, special deputy for welfare reform in the Department of Health and Welfare. "That's what we expect people to be doing - be in paid employment."In other states in the region, the range of benefit limits varies from three years in New Mexico to five years in Montana, Colorado and Wyo-ming. Some states, like Arizona, allow a total of five years of benefits, but those benefits are restricted to only 24 months during any 60-month period.

The variety of time limits set for benefits in the Mountain West are indicative of the plethora of programs and innovations the eight-state area has undertaken with wel-fare reform.

A few states outside the region have passed even harsher time limits than Idaho. Tennessee has a 60-month life-time cap, but that state's lawmakers have set an 18-month limit on consecutive months of assistance. In general, Connecticut allows only 21 months but will provide six-month extensions in certain instances.

Debbie Weinstein with the Children's Defense Fund, an advocacy group involved in the national welfare-reform debate, said it was disappointing to her that some states didn't adopt the five-year maximum allowed by federal law.

Weinstein views welfare-reform measures across the nation as a mixed bag. She wouldn't comment on Utah's current welfare plan. But she said the state's former pilot programs were good because they focused on the individual needs of parents and families.

"Utah set up a self-sufficiency contract with families where there was a common-sense approach to what those families really needed to go to work," she said.

Almost all Mountain West states introduce clients to the welfare process by first trying to shift them immediately into gainful employment. In Utah, self-sufficiency in employment planning is stressed before eligibility determination is made.

"When a person comes in the office, the first worker they see is a person who works with them to see how to get them employed or what do they need to get employed, instead of filling out paperwork and seeing if they are eligible for benefits," said Mason Bishop, public affairs director for Workforce Ser-vices. "It sends the message that we're about self-sufficiency and employment and not income main-tenance and eligibility."

Montana also initially pushes welfare recipients toward employment. Like Utah, if it's determined there are no jobs available for an applicant, Montana then requires a welfare applicant to sign a Family Investment Agreement that spells out what the recipient must do to become employed and what the state will do to help them.

If, after two years in this "Pathways Program" the welfare recipient is still without permanent work, he or she has to begin doing at least 20 hours of community service work per week in order to continue receiving cash assistance for up to three more years.

"Actually before TANF came along, the community services portion was not time-limited," said Anastasia Burton, public information officer with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. "The federal government caused us to be a little bit stricter than we had originally planned."

TANF is an acronym for the federal government's Temporary Aid to Needy Families program, the state block grants that supersede previous income-subsidy programs for impoverished individuals and their families.

Montana's program is unique because it provides incentives for employers to hire welfare recipients. Under the Family Friendly Business Loan Program, a small business can borrow up to $20,000 from the state at zero interest in return for providing a full-time job for a welfare recipient at $5.50 or more per hour.

In Wyoming, lawmakers have decided to classify the earning of a post-secondary degree as a work activity, which is not allowed under federal mandates, and which the state is going to fund from its own coffers.

"Both two-year and four-year degrees - they will not necessarily go up into the area of a master's program, but they will allow a baccalaureate or associate degree," said Bob Kuchera with the Wyoming Department of Family Services.

Before determining benefits to be received, Wyoming allows an earned-income "disregard" of $200 per individual or $400 per household per month, meaning the first $400 earned by a household would not be counted in determining cash assistance benefits.

Some states have also offered such disregards, especially as a means of providing additional funds to a family for child-care benefits. Others, like Utah, have resorted to a more traditional stipend program. Arizona adds transitional health and child-care coverage for up to 24 months for cash assistance for recipients who move into employment.

Child care is one of the many issues that have been hotly debated in Colorado. The state's Democratic governor, Roy Roemer, and his Republican-dominated legislature have locked horns on child care and various other welfare-reform issues. Political observers there think child care will probably be provided much as it is in Utah, in the form of a payment based on a sliding scale, fee-based design.

In other critical issues, Roemer recently informed lawmakers he would be loath to sign any welfare measure that didn't include statewide standards for eligibility and compliance. Some lawmakers want county-by-county eligibility criteria.

In comparison to Colorado, political partisanship was a relatively minor factor in discussions on welfare reform in Utah. Disagreements have also hampered the reform debate in Nevada and New Mexico. In the Land of Enchantment, Republican Gov. Gary Johnson rejected his Democratic legislature's welfare plan and implemented a more restrictive version administratively.

Like Utah, the overall economy in Nevada is booming, meaning wel-fare reform should be easier to implement than in other states.

Myla Florence, administrator of the Nevada Welfare Division, said caseloads have dropped 28 percent in the Silver State because of welfare-reform initiatives and the generally healthy service economy found in many of the state's urban areas.

The state is already working to beef up employment programs for welfare recipients in the hotel and gaming industry, which have been generally pleased with the workers they've hired off the public assistance rolls.

"They've got about a 72 percent retention rate," she said. "Clearly, this (welfare reform) is easier to accomplish in a robust economy."

The same cannot be said of New Mexico where, outside of Albu-quer-que, the economy is mostly flat or stagnant.

However, like in many other states, caseloads have dropped in New Mexico since the TANF program began to take effect. Julie McGregor Britti, communications director with the New Mexico Human Services Department, said the state's welfare caseload has fallen 14 percent since last year.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Welfare reforms - Mountain West

lifetime limits on benefits:

Utah 3 years

Idaho 2 years

Mont. 5 years

Wyo. 5 years

Colo. 5 years

N.M. 3 years

Nev. 5 years, but only 24 months out of each 36

Ariz. 5 years, but only 24 months out of each 60

reform plan fully completed:

Utah Yes

Idaho No

Mont. Yes

Wyo. Yes

Colo. No

N.M. No

Nev. Yes

Ariz. Yes

additional benefits denied for birth of child:

Utah No

Idaho No

Mont. No

Wyo. No

Colo. No

N.M. No

Nev. No

Ariz. Yes

continues benefits to legal non-citizens:

Utah Yes

Idaho ?

Mont. Yes

Wyo. No

Colo. ?

N.M. ?

Nev. Yes

Ariz. ?

Source: Children's Defense Fund and state sources