WASHINGTON -- Sharon Pedersen found out the hard way just how much welfare has changed in America.
She missed two appointments with her state caseworker -- once, she says, because she was sick and once because her alarm didn't go off. Iowa cut off her $364 monthly check, and now she is hoping the nursing home where she used to work will rehire her."It was never like that before," said Pedersen, of Denison, Iowa.
Across the country, the number of people on welfare continues to drop dramatically -- partly because states are aggressively using their new power to punish those who don't follow tough new rules, according to a 50-state survey by The Associated Press.
The power to punish is being used quite differently from state to state: In some, such punishments are rare; in others, half of the people leaving welfare were dropped for failing to follow rules.
Meanwhile, the time limits expected to end government aid for millions of poor people have had little effect in the 13 states where the clock has run out.
Time limits and penalties, together with work requirements, were the pillars of the 1996 welfare overhaul. Under the old system, Americans got help as long as they were poor enough, and states were severely restricted in cutting off checks.
Things have changed. States now are allowed -- even encouraged -- to cut assistance for anyone who does not follow their rules. Even if they do cooperate, people can get help for only five years -- less time in the 22 states with shorter time limits.
Since 1994, the number of Americans on welfare has dropped a dramatic 44 percent, due partly to the strong economy but also to states' aggressive punishments.
In Kentucky, 58 percent of the people who leave welfare are pushed off because they do not follow rules. In California and Illinois, nearly half those leaving welfare are doing so as a punishment; that comes to tens of thousands each month.
States punish people not only for failing to participate in work programs but also for mundane offenses.
In Texas, 57 percent of those who left welfare last year were removed because they did not keep appointments or failed to "provide complete information."
In Arizona, 60 percent were taken off welfare because they did not appear for a welfare interview.
"Those people are just disappearing, and we don't know at this point if it is because they did get employment or if they're going to local charities," said Vince Wood, who runs Arizona's program.
Other officials argue that recipients make the choice.