Mariah Latimer unbinds a full head of tight braids with fast fingers, combs the hair with a tooth comb orderly and creates varying layers of thickness without a pause.
It’s all part of a free 1,500-hour course she is taking at Paul Mitchell The School, a cosmetology school in north Columbia.
Latimer, 21, is a single mother of a one-year-old son, Ezekiel. She has been on welfare for about a year and a half. Barely making ends meet with $234 monthly temporary cash assistance and $356 monthly food stamp benefits, she said she constantly feels butterflies in her stomach.
“The fact that benefits may not always be there scares me,” she said, “so I want to (be financially independent) when I have the skills to work.”
Latimer is one Missouri welfare recipient who obtains job training, vocational education, childcare services and employment assistance from the Missouri Work Assistance (MWA) program, which is part of the current welfare system known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Two decades after a domestic policy overhaul, the welfare system has helped many people like Latimer for a certain time period, but it still has pitfalls. In 2014, the number of families on TANF for every 100 families in poverty nationwide slumped for about two thirds to 23. The substantial decrease in welfare caseload, however, hasn’t been accompanied by lower poverty levels. Missouri has seen the similar paradox.
Candace Iveson, a clinical instructor at the University of Missouri’s School of Social Work, is skeptical about the effectiveness of the reform.
“If the goal is to reduce the case load, it has been very successful,” she said. “If the goal is to lift the family to self-sustaining position, that has not been successful at all.”
Twenty years ago last month, President Bill Clinton signed a welfare reform bill that brings self-reliance to the welfare equation and focuses on getting people into the workforce. The policy provides a $16.5 billion block grant for states annually since the reform, shortens lifetime limits on cash benefits to five years, requires recipients to work or get training, and gives flexibility to states in shaping their own welfare programs to meet their particular needs.
As a result of those changes, people like Latimer have to spend a certain amount of hours a week in some work activity to qualify for cash welfare. Work activity can be a job, volunteer work or short-term job training like the cosmetology class. Currently, Missouri has 10 contracted agencies that run the Missouri Work Assistance program in 19 regions with 94 total offices. Despite these work-focused efforts, the results haven’t been broadly optimistic.
“There are instances that the program has helped families,” Iveson said. “They are specific examples: families that just need a couple months of help or help with job interview skills, or are just teetering on the edge. For families that are any farther, it’s not very helpful.”
Rising spending on non-core areas
In 2014, Missouri was one of 21 states that spent the majority of welfare money on non-core areas, according to a Marketplace report. Non-core expenditures are defined as those in areas beyond cash assistance, childcare and work assistance programs. In 1997, right after the introduction of TANF, about 80 percent of all TANF funding went to those main categories. In 2014, only one-third contributed to those areas.
Cash assistance was cut by more than a half between 1997 and 2014. Spending on work assistance programs remained a small segment of total amount (of the state’s total welfare spending). Child care funds have fluctuated moderately over the past 20 years, accounting for between 10 and 25 percent of total spending in any given year. By contrast, the amount allotted to the other, or non-core, areas has seen a robust increase.
Clark Peters, an associate professor at the University of Missouri’s School of Social Work, looks at the increasing state’s autonomy with skepticism.
“What the critics would say is that oftentimes money gets funneled to people who have political capital,” he said. The difficulty in distributing the money, Peters said, is “how to strike a balance that allows for creativity and, yet, the most disadvantaged get assistance.”
In Missouri, the maximum TANF benefit accounts for less than a fifth of poverty line, which is $1,680 per month for a family of three. Adjusted for inflation, the value of Missouri’s $292 TANF monthly benefit for a single-parent family of three declined by almost a third between 1996 and 2016, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Without spending increase, inflation will continue to erode the benefits’ value, leaving an expanding gap to be filled by non-cash benefits such as food stamps.
Tougher rules shrink welfare rolls
In early 2015, Missouri lawmakers passed a law that reduced to 45 months the length of time a family can obtain welfare benefits. The law went into effect in January. Only eight states have shorter lifetime limits than Missouri, with Connecticut setting the floor at 21 months. The others are Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana and Kansas.
“This is one of the great myths about welfare,” Iveson said. “The reason why they did time limit was that there was a sense that people got on welfare and collected it forever. That has never been the case…The vast majority of people don’t get on it and stay on it forever…That’s not true before and after the change of law.”
More than 6,000 children living in needy households and about 3,000 needy families are expected to drop out of the program when the new bill takes effect, the Associated Press reported.
In addition to the change on time limit, the bill also strengthens the requirements for low-income parents to get job training, do volunteer work or complete vocational education. That means, before getting cash benefits, participants have to outline a personal responsibility plan. If they fail to engage in work within six weeks, their benefits will be cut by half. If the problem is not fixed, they lose the entire assistance.
One side-effect of the new rule is that “several families in poverty aren’t reaching out anymore,” said Angela Hirsch, community services director at Central Missouri Community Action (CMCA), a non-profit running the Missouri Work Assistance program in eight counties in central Missouri.
“It’s just too much a hassle,” Iveson said.
A second chance, not a promise
Most job training or vocational education programs are short term, which are unlikely to prepare participants for middle-class jobs or make up for years of lack of basic education, Hirsch said.
“It’s hard to assess a participant’s career vision, because they have limited resources and live day to day in crises,” said Brooke Eskridge, community services program manager at CMCA. “We help them break down those walls, start dreaming and goal-planning in a different way, try to get them to think farther beyond the barrier right here.”
Getting out of TANF doesn’t mean those families are self-sufficient. For many of those families, life can still be fraught with challenges. Even those who do find jobs may not necessarily jump out of poverty immediately. Instead, they often work low-paying jobs.
“I don’t know if anybody gets a career out of MWA, but they do get a start towards a career in MWA,” Hirsch said. “I think it’s very effective at getting people a foot in the door of employment, and getting them their first job so that they have something to put on their resumes.”
Iveson said that the reform is unlikely to produce immediate results. “We can address this if we are willing to spend a lot of money on it and have some patience,” she said.
Latimer had a rocky childhood. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Latimer spent most of her childhood and teenage rootless. Since the time she was 5, Latimer has lived at more than a dozen of foster centers, at a teen shelter, with an adoptive family, and been homeless for almost two years. When she eventually moved back to Columbia at the age of 19, she found herself, unexpectedly, pregnant. Having been through a time of depression, she said she is glad to eventually turn to the right place.
“I’m not a greedy person,” she said. “This (work assistance) program has helped a lot.”
Now, five months pregnant with a second child, Latimer feels stressed about the future. She said she is never content with relying on government benefits. Her goal is to eventually stand on her own feet and open a hair center that provides childcare services for single-parent customers.
She is graduating next April. Starting out, she expects to work at a hair salon and earn enough to leave welfare behind.
“I want to be a provider,” she said. “Now, knowing that I’m able to work towards my dream and that dream can help me provide for my children without the assistance, I’m more relieved.”