Welfare Reform Wave Washes Over the Nation

 by Gilda Storm
     Attention to "welfare reform" has brought about fundamental changes to the government safety net at both the state and federal levels.
     The Ohio legislature unexpectedly joined a firestorm sweeping the country and passed a "welfare reform" package. On June 7, 1995 amendments were passed on the floor of the House that will place a time limit on public assistance of 3 years of every 5 years with some exemptions, require persons that are 21 years or older have a GED or high school diploma to be eligible for pubic assistance, and place a cap on benefits for families who receive public assistance.
     These "welfare reform" amendments never received a public hearing or any type of public scrutiny before they were passed by the House. The impact of these amendments is a whole new set of standards for possible disqualification from public assistance. The family benefits cap will mean that the addition of a family member will no longer result in an increase in benefits. A public assistance recipient will receive more vouchers, but not an increase in cash assistance. There are also new mandates requiring drug screenings for pregnant women receiving assistance and for individuals enrolled in the JOBS program.
     The Ohio Senate passed similar legislation and the Governor signed the budget into law in August.
     On the federal level, tentative plans to balance the federal budget in seven years have resulted in a general blueprint requiring massive cuts in nutrition programs; the Women, Infant and Children food program; housing for those afflicted with AIDS; and a number of McKinney Act- funded programs which attempt to address homelessness on a federal scale. The proposal offered by Representative John Kasich (R-OH) offers a 35 percent decrease, with adjustment for inflation over the next seven years, for federal programs such as the homeless assistance funds, emergency shelter grants, disabled housing programs, elderly housing subsidies, and supportive/transitional housing, with cuts as large as 80 percent for Section 8 low income housing renewals.
     The U.S. Senate's current version is similar, and a conference committee will decide on a compromise. President Bill Clinton has vowed to veto the proposed budget by the Republican majority, but has not voiced support for the entitlement programs.
While few activists applauded the current federal programs to end homelessness, there was always a sense that the government funds were available for innovative programs that would mean a decrease in the population. At this time, the Republican-led Congress is attempting to turn all social service activities over to the private sector.
     There is an effort to eliminate the Community Reinvestment Act, which set in motion fair lending laws by financial institutions. This is not a budgetary reform, because the act was merely a regulation that banks must follow. The new version of the Reinvestment Act grants an exemption from or allows for self-certification of the laws requiring a bank not to discriminate in its lending practices.
     The Legal Aid Services, which provides legal assistance for the low income, is also a target of the current Congress. A major portion of the Legal Aid Services budget comes from the federal government and is used to provide free legal services to low income people for civil cases involving housing, public assistance benefits, and domestic violence issues. The Kasich proposal would cut 35 percent from the program's budget in 1996, and end the program in 1997.
     The Clinton tax incentive for working low income families is scheduled for debate in October. The Earned Income Tax Credit, which was intended to compensate the working poor who must pay health care and child care expenses, could be eliminated in this next budget cycle.
     Activists in Ohio are predicting "dark times ahead for social services." The Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio say these new federal and state cuts are made in "a spirit of downright coldness that is pervasive." In Cincinnati, Janie Mynott from Welcome House said, "It's a nightmare. And with these cuts there's no relief in sight."

Copyright  NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published Oct. – Dec. 1995 Issue 12