Delaware’s Welfare Reform Plan Hailed


Delaware, one of the first states to implement a comprehensive welfare reform plan, reported Monday that two years later, welfare clients in the new program had higher work rates, greater earnings and lower welfare payments than a small group allowed to continue in the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.

In the report, independent analysts suggested that Delaware’s “A Better Chance,” or ABC, program has demonstrated the effectiveness of short time-limits on welfare eligibility, a clear work-first orientation and, in particular, an unsparing use of sanctions.

By last spring, fully half of all welfare families in Delaware had suffered significant cuts in their welfare grants because they failed to meet the program’s extensive requirements. The ABC program not only required participants to seek work and accept it under most circumstances; it also dictated that they attend parenting classes, obtain information on family planning services and ensure that school-aged children were in class.

Delaware officials also discovered a key secret of welfare reform: That stiff new requirements, pressure to take a job, and swift financial punishment for failure to comply with new rules appear to have the effect of hustling--or hassling--large numbers of recipients off the rolls more quickly than they might have gone otherwise.

In roughly the first year of the ABC program, Delaware’s welfare rolls fell by 6%. Over the last five years, the state’s rolls have plummeted 22%.


In the end, more than half of the welfare recipients sanctioned for failing to comply with ABC’s new rules left welfare. The study, prepared by Abt Associates of Cambridge, Mass., noted that an “overwhelming” number of those leaving welfare cited their dislike of, or inability to comply with, the tough new rules.

Dawn Queensen, a 29-year-old mother of two, was one of those hustled off Delaware’s rolls quickly as a result of the ABC program.

Queensen had been on welfare for eight months when Delaware’s ABC program got underway in October 1995. Newly divorced and casting about for ways to support her family alone, Queensen took to heart the advice of caseworkers who told her not to wait around for the state to provide elaborate career training. Before exhausting her two-year limit on welfare checks, they told her, she should find something she liked and did well, and apply for every related job opening she could find.

Queensen concluded that with a little training she could get herself a license to drive trucks and buses and the jobs would follow. For minimum wage, she drove a school bus part-time to satisfy the state’s work requirement, looking for full-time work between shifts. Within three months, she landed a truck-driver’s job delivering eggs for $400 a week. And by August 1996, Queensen had landed a job with the Delaware Department of Rapid Transit, maintaining buses and vans for a little more than $400 a week and full benefits.

The job paid enough to get Queensen off the welfare rolls in less than a year.

“It did seem like I was being rushed out the door,” said Queensen in a telephone interview. “The pressure was on to find a job, to get out there in the work force . . . so it gave me a little more incentive to get out there faster.”

Investigators concluded that a year after the ABC program’s start-up, its participants fared better than those in the old-style AFDC program in a number of ways. For ABC participants the employment rate was 11% higher, earnings were $167 per month higher, and average welfare payments were $76 per month lower.

The Delaware program set out to “make work pay” by allowing recipients to keep some of their welfare grants even as their earned income increased. The Abt study suggested, however, that while many recipients felt pressure to get off the rolls, few were greatly rewarded for doing so. After a year, ABC had “no impact on average household income,” it concluded.

The study’s authors found that the rigors of the ABC program seemed to work best on welfare recipients who had been on the rolls one-to-two years. These recipients were employable, but needed some extra guidance and services to help usher them into jobs.

The program delivered less impressive results for long-term recipients who face obstacles to employment more daunting than the ABC program appeared able to resolve, and with short-term recipients, who normally find jobs and leave welfare quickly anyway.

In an interview, the chief of Delaware’s Division of Social Services called the findings “exciting” and said the state’s extensive use of sanctions was “an integral part” of the program’s success.

“Consistent application, especially when the program is changing so dramatically from what people knew, is very important,” said Elaine Archangelo. “Otherwise, the message that this is now a transitional benefit, a time-limited program, might not be believed. . . . The intent is not to be a hassle. It’s to help people get and keep a job.”