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Welfare reform failing?

Utah advocates for poor question Cato grading system

Deseret Morning News graphic

Utah's efforts at welfare reform are failing, a leading public policy think tank announced Monday.

The Cato Institute's report card of state welfare programs gave Utah an F along with seven other states and the District of Columbia.

Analysts at the institute, which is nonprofit, libertarian and seeks to limit the role of government, doled out just four A's, seven B's, 20 C's, and 11 D's.

The report looked at policy reforms by states the past seven years since the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) was signed into law.

Specifically, it slammed Utah for failing to implement a "family cap" to discourage additional births while on welfare, for ranking 47th in the decline of the birthrate for minors and for allowing continued subsidization of teenage parenthood.

The state earned the low marks even as Cato's policy analysts observed a state budget surplus, lower unemployment rates than much of the nation and high job growth — all factors that could reduce welfare rolls.

"There is no reason Utah cannot succeed in reducing dependence" on welfare, the report noted.

Administrators of Utah's leading advocacy group for the poor said the public should keep in mind that "welfare" reform depends largely on the tools of measurement.

"You have to look at where they are coming from," said Utah Issues' Pam Silberman. "For them, the greatest result of welfare reform would be the elimination of the welfare system. . . . The way they grade the states, be it succeeding or failing, has to viewed with that lens."

The grading system looked at, among other things, overall caseload reduction and moving people into the work force.

While that appears noble at first blush, Silberman noted that Utah's system failed to get any credit for its emphasis on job training or educational training to get people into higher-paying jobs.

"That is a positive feature of Utah's welfare program, that job training and job education count toward the work requirement. . . . You can't reduce poverty if you just send people out to the first minimum wage job they find."

Officials from the state Department of Workforce Services, the agency that administers welfare money, agree.

"We think that education and training is key to reduced poverty in the long run," said Mike Richardson, head of the agency's delivery support services.

"And that is what we hear from employers — they tell us they need an educated work force."

Richardson and others from the agency point out the report comes on the heels of a $3.5 million performance bonus the state received just last week from the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Utah was one of just 10 states in the country to receive the bonus for its work on welfare and has received it each year since the performance bonus was implemented.

State officials add that Utah's low grade is largely tied to its "more flexible and less punitive" programs that aim at permanently lifting people out of poverty rather than simply finding a job.

Both state workers and Silberman said the report perpetuates stereotypes of welfare recipients with its emphasis on instituting family caps.

"The report perpetuates the myths that welfare is a cash cow for women and all their babies," Silberman said.

In fact, she noted, the average size of a family on welfare in Utah is 1.9, and the most typical is a woman with two children.

"While the state was criticized for the lack of a family cap, there is not a need. The family size here is very small."

Silberman said the states with the highest marks are those with policies that cause people to struggle.

"You have to go back and look at their stated goal — to eliminate the public welfare system and turn it back to the private sector with charitable organizations and churches," she said. "We tried that in the 19th century in the United States. And what a frightening model. They would have us go back to the time when there were poor houses."


E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com