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Mixed bag on ending welfare

Families who have hit time limit studied

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Marital status, education and mental health are some of the biggest factors in the success or failure of Utah families who used to be long-term welfare recipients, according to a study released this week.

The results of the first close look at Utah families who have reached the three-year lifetime limit for receiving welfare were released this week by the Department of Workforce Services.

The study, commissioned by Workforce Services through the University of Utah Social Research Institute Graduate School, gives mixed results on the success of the time-limited cash assistance program, which was implemented in 1997 with the federal Welfare Reform Act.

"We wanted to find out how we can make it better, to find out what we're doing," Curt Stewart of the Department of Workforce Services said.

Researchers interviewed 407 individuals who had been long-term welfare recipients and had been off welfare for more than two months.

A third of survey respondents had increased income at the end of their three years of public assistance, with 23 percent reporting incomes above 150 percent of what is considered poverty.

However, the study also showed that as clients stopped receiving welfare, their household income decreased and they were more likely to rely on food from food banks and community centers than when they were getting assistance.

Yet even the 23 percent who are reportedly above poverty-level income "aren't out of the woods," said Bill Crim, director of Utah Issues. "That doesn't mean they're getting what they need . . . they may not be self-sufficient and out in our 'great economy,' working jobs with health-care benefits and sufficient income to pay for child care and housing."

"Then there are the other two-thirds" of study respondents who haven't raised their income, Crim added. They "need more time and more support." If Utah chose to lengthen the welfare time limit to five years, which is the federal government's time line, more recipients would be able to find good jobs, he said.

"What is 'success' in the world of welfare reform?" the study asks. "If success is case closure, this report describes 407 success stories. . . . But if success is economic independence and family well-being, the picture is more complex."

The study identified five factors that hold the most influence over success or failure: continuous time in employment, symptoms of depression, having a partner, holding a high school diploma or its equivalent and having children under the age of 5.

"The people who had received things like GEDs or work skills training have done better. Those who hadn't experienced some hardships," Stewart said.

People who suffered from depression, had a history of abuse or a childhood spent in foster care also were more likely to have their income levels drop off after going off the cash assistance program.

Minorities, particularly Hispanics, were more likely to have their cases closed because they reached the mandatory time limit rather than because of an increased income, the study reports.

E-MAIL: ehayes@desnews.com