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Welfare-to-work system frustrating, survey says

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Leslie Petersen is frustrated by the system that is supposed to help her family move from welfare to work.

Her husband, who has learning disabilities and is illiterate, has not yet received education or job training. She had to fight her caseworker at the Department of Workforce Services to accept that her in-home child-care business is legitimate work.Her food stamps were miscalculated and she finally had to turn to a poverty advocate to help explain the mistake to her caseworker.

Officials from the Utah Welfare Redesign Partnership Project say Petersen is not alone in her frustration. On Saturday, the partnership issued a study in which 334 low-income Utahns surveyed indicated frustration in the system and barriers to making a smooth transition off welfare.

In August 1996, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which included work requirement and lifetime limits for assistance. In the two years since, Utah has combined all its assistance programs under the umbrella of the mammoth Department of Workforce Services. Advocates for the poor criticized the department and its caseworkers Saturday for what they say has become a confusing, inadequate process for needy families.

Sixty-five percent of respondents surveyed this spring didn't know or understand the appeals process available to them at the Department of Workforce Services.

The survey also found 87 percent of respondents who appeared eligible for child support were not receiving it and those working were earning an average of $6.90 an hour, below the federal poverty level for a family of three.

Welfare families moving toward employment are finding a chaotic system, said Monet Steen, an advocate for Justice Independence and Dignity (JEDI) for Women, one of the three nonprofits who makeup the partnership.

Steen and others want the state to expand its lifetime limit for welfare. The federal law allows states to offer a 60-month lifetime limit but Utah lawmakers adopted a 36-month limit instead.

In the rush to get people off of welfare before their eligibility runs out, the system is ignoring individual problems and the long-term health of families, Steen said.

The survey, designed by partnership members Utahns Against Hunger, Utah Issues and JEDI Women, was conducted by interviewing 334 people waiting in lines at food pantries in Salt Lake, Grand, Carbon and Utah counties.

More than 75 percent of the respondents had children. Most were female, white and had a high school education. Respondents ranged from people with some college education to an elderly woman and a mother of five young children who were both scouring trash bins for food.

The partnership is recommending the department make changes to help economically vulnerable families including:

- People with children under the age of six who cannot find affordable, accessible child care should be exempted from the 36-month eligibility limits.

- Education and job training for clients on welfare should be made available by Workforce Services.

- The state should apply for federal welfare-to-work grants, which could give the state an additional $4 million to reduce barriers to employment.

- Caseworkers should treat people with respect. And Workforce Services should expand its hours to be open in the evenings and on Saturdays.