Five years ago, thousands of low-income Kansans were told their days on welfare were numbered.
Starting in October 1996, they couldn't be on public assistance for more than 60 months. If they were, they would be cut off, forever.
That 60-month period ends today, a day long dreaded by most advocates for the poor.
But state welfare officials now say no more than 30 Kansas families only one in Douglas County face the likelihood of being cut off between now and June 30, 2002, the end of the state's fiscal year.
"We don't have anybody clocking off anytime soon," said Arthurine Criswell, director of the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services' area office in Lawrence.
Most recipients, she said, avoided the cutoff by finding work. Others were already dropped from the rolls for not participating in required job-training programs.
The rest are thought to be exempt from the cutoff because their disabilities mental, physical, or both are severe enough to keep them from working. Under federal law, states are allowed to exempt 20 percent of their caseloads.
Single mother, many bills
Pam Lewis, 48, had been on cash assistance for more than 20 years when she found out about the cutoff.
"I hadn't worked because I wanted to stay home and raise my kids. And I don't have an education," she said. "But when the time came, I didn't have any trouble getting a job."
For the past two years, Lewis has worked at McDonald's, 901 W. 23rd St. She makes $7.75 an hour running one of the cash registers, usually from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m.
"I like it there. We all get along, we all help each other," she said. "Everything is by the book, I like that, too. It's a good place to work."
She also likes getting paid. "It's nice to get a paycheck and know it's yours and that somebody just didn't give it to you," she said. "That part does make me feel good."
But being off welfare does not mean Lewis and others like her are better off.
"Moneywise, I have to say I was better off when I was on SRS," Lewis said. "Back then, I didn't have a car I didn't have one for years but now I have to have one to get to work, so I have to pay for car insurance and keep it gassed up. That costs money.
"A lot of people in my situation have roommates or husbands to help pay the bills, but I don't," she said. "I'm having a hard time. In fact, you might say I'm going down the tubes.
"I keep going, I guess, because I like my job, and I know me and my kids could be worse off."
Lewis' 13- and 16-year-old daughters and a grandson live with her.
Welfare reform forever changed the nation's approach to caring for the poor.
"There's been a culture change," said Tracy Bedell, a case manager with Full Citizenship, a Lawrence program that helps welfare recipients find and keep jobs.
"A lot of people have had to re-examine how they live their lives and, frankly, I don't have a problem with that. They're better off socially, their self-esteem is better, and they're setting a better example for their kids.
"But everybody needs to understand that just because someone goes off public assistance, that doesn't mean they're not poor," she said. "If you're a single mom with two kids and you're making $7.75 an hour, you're poor. You're working, you're not on welfare, but you're still poor."
Five years after welfare reform, SRS still has a role in helping the working poor, though critics say the agency does too little.
Families going off public assistance remain eligible for food stamps and, when it's available, help in paying their day-care and utility bills. Children remain eligible for Medicaid for a year, after which they can switch to Healthwave, the state's health insurance program for low-income families.
State and federal earned income tax credits also help.
"When someone goes off public assistance, our work is not done," said Candace Shively, deputy secretary in charge of integrated service delivery at SRS.
"We need to make sure they understand they're still eligible for things like food stamps and medical care. And if they're having trouble finding or holding on to a job, we need to help them get through whatever barriers to employment they may have."
A recent analysis found that when a working parent is taking advantage of all the services available through SRS is comparable to getting paid an additional six dollars an hour, Shively said.
"We encourage families to be self-sufficient," she said. "But we also want them to know they've not been abandoned. We want them to succeed, we want to help."
How much is enough?
But SRS' notion of "help" falls far short of what low-income families need to meet their basic needs, said Paul Johnson, executive director of the Public Assistance Coalition of Kansas, a church-sponsored advocacy group for the poor.
"What's not being said here is that we've got all these marginally employed, minimum-wage moms out there who aren't making it and who are now in such a desperate financial hole, there's no way to get out," Johnson said.
"And SRS' response has been 'We'll give them food stamps, we'll give them HealthWave, but that's it.'"
That's not enough, Johnson said.
Johnson and others are anxiously waiting to see what happens next, especially in the wake of the economy softening.
Already, SRS caseloads are climbing. A year ago, 12,500 Kansas families were on cash assistance; today the number stands at 13,350. The average assistance period is six to nine months.
"The question now is how do we develop a system to help the working poor?" Johnson said. "It's not enough to tell them to find a minimum-wage job when everybody knows that's not enough."