ST. PAUL -- Shannon Smith wasn't too concerned when Congress decided five years was long enough for families to collect welfare checks. She was working off-and-on as a personal care assistant and figured something permanent would come up by the time her benefits expired.
But with her clock running out in October, the 29-year-old St. Paul woman is still looking for a job that would pay enough to support her family. "I really didn't take it seriously at first, and that's my own fault," Smith said.
Although she has five children -- the youngest 6 weeks, the oldest 11 years -- Smith said: "I'm not scared. Everything is going to be OK. I'm a believer that God won't put anything on your shoulders that you can't handle. Something will come up, even if I have to work for $6 an hour."
About 1,000 Minnesota families were the first to reach the time-limit this week, with hundreds more, like Smith's, coming up against their deadlines in the coming months. Half of those families, or more, will qualify for an extension of their benefits because of mental disabilities or other problems, according to social workers.
"By far, the vast majority of families have done what policy makers and the public wanted them to do" when Congress created the time limits, said Deborah Schlick, a welfare planner at the Ramsey County Department of Human Services.
Tough new rules and a strong economy combined to cut welfare rolls by more than half after Congress revamped the rules in 1996. Most people who have left welfare are working, making more than they got from welfare but not enough to escape poverty.
About 50,000 Minnesotans were enrolled in the state's welfare program when the clock began ticking in July 1997, meaning just 2 percent of that initial wave failed to meet the new work requirements.
More than 300 families will hit the deadline each month through the end of the year, said Chuck Johnson, director of the Families with Children Division of the Human Services Department. The average monthly check for a family of three is $532. Families losing their cash benefits still qualify for food stamps and medical care. Child care is available for those who work.
Not everyone considers the results of the federal reforms to be a success.
Linden Gawboy, a volunteer for the Welfare Rights Coalition, which is active in Minneapolis and Duluth, calls the 5-year limit "completely unacceptable.
"Our perspective is that a single cut is too much," she said. "If a family is in need, they're in need. It shouldn't be based on some politician's dream world that a time limit will change everything."
Gawboy's group argues that children are hurt when cash benefits are cut and that work requirements keep people from pursuing the education that could help them get a good job.
The Welfare Rights Coalition organized a rally of about 100 people Monday at the Governor's Mansion to protest the 5-year limit.
Johnson calls the time limit "an appropriate signal about the temporary nature of welfare, that this isn't something you can stay on for your entire life."
However, he added: "It's important that if someone is making an effort, they aren't arbitrarily cut off."
The Legislature addressed that point in 2001, passing a law requiring counties to screen welfare recipients and extend benefits to those whose problems prevent them from getting a job. Counties credit the law for helping them to learn more about why a hard-to-reach element of welfare recipients can't seem to get on track, social workers said.
"We think that without these aggressive assessments, we would have missed some people with low or borderline IQs, and they would have lost benefits," Schlick said.
Congress must renew the law, and a major question is how to help those who remain on welfare and how to help those who leave the rolls move upward on the economic ladder.
In the Senate, moderates of both parties agree that states should be required to put more people to work. But some want states to have more power to count education and training as work.
That would help Luann Hieb.
The St. Paul woman is finding out fast that she needs more than a high school diploma to get a good job. Hieb, 36, said she was turned down for a job at Burger King because she's never operated a cash register.
She's been on welfare steadily since 1993 and spent the last four years caring for her mother, who had had a stroke.
"It's hard to find a job when you don't have any experience," said Hieb, who is in a job training program at Lifetrack Resources, an agency that works with welfare cases in Ramsey County. "But for four years, I've had to do what I've been doing. I'd like to go back to school, but with three kids in school, when would I have time to do my homework?"
On the Net:
Minnesota Department of Human Services: http://www.dhs.state.mn.us
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