Public policy researcher Shirley Weathers likens public assistance "hardship cases" to riders on a bus.
They represent a population that faces multiple barriers to becoming self-sufficient. Many will require an extension to their welfare benefits once the 36-month lifetime limit on their public assistance lapses.Some may be able to resolve their difficulties and relinquish their seats on the bus.
Others will not be able to do so.
Both federal and state laws allow hardship exemptions, 20 percent of Utah's monthly Family Employment Program caseload. The Department of Workforce Services estimates exemptions could total some 2,000 cases.
Over time, Weathers predicts, the limited number of exemptions will be depleted as more families who cannot become self-supporting reach time limits.
"What is going to happen is, the bus is going to get full and they're not going to be able to open the doors any more," said Weathers of Walsh & Weathers Research and Policy Studies speaking Friday at a forum at the Holiday Inn.
"There will be no more exemptions left. There's no provision in Utah law or PRWORA (the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act) to create more exemptions."
Research suggests that the welfare segment can be divided into thirds. About one-third of welfare recipients need only temporary and minimal assistance and rarely stay on assistance long enough to reach time limits.
The second third may have barriers to self-sufficiency that can be overcome if problems are identified and addressed early in their case history.
The final third is "deeply troubled to the extent it is probably unreasonable to expect them to ever become self- or family-sustaining," Weathers said.
Research conducted by the University of Utah found that 92 percent of long-time recipients interviewed had one substantial personal or family barrier to employment.
Nearly 40 percent reported four or more barriers including serious mental and physical health conditions; inadequate education and work skills; poor work history; domestic violence; substance abuse; and major child behavior problems.
"This is the group the charitable sector is most likely to see needing services," Weather said.
"The services that the final one-third need are broad, not just financial assistance."
Two years into welfare reform, little is known about the long-term effects of new laws and programs on vulnerable populations.
But Congress openly stated its intent that the charitable sector would play a larger role in assisting the needy -- in part to make up for new gaps in government assistance.
No one knows how great a burden charities and churches will be asked to shoulder, but Weathers said people will come asking for help. It is time for these organizations to focus on that challenge, she said.
Cash to pay for the basic necessities may be the greatest need. "Rarely has the charitable sector faced requests by families without other options for ongoing, monthly income maintenance since the Great Depression," Weathers said.
"If charitable providers are confronted with levels of requests beyond their capability to respond, it is difficult to imagine to whom people will turn," Winters wrote in the executive summary of a "Foundation Report: The Charitable Sector and Welfare Reform in Utah."
The final report should be available in April, she said.