Welfare-to-work system challenged to serve new areas of need

08/30/04

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Proximity to social service providers has never been more critical for poor populations than it is under the current service-oriented welfare system, yet service providers remain located near urban centers with historically high rates of poverty even though many areas outside urban centers have experienced increases in poverty, according to a new report.

Today, more than half of all Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) dollars go to the provision of support services, in contrast to the system it replaced in 1996, under which nearly 80 percent of all welfare dollars went to cash assistance for recipients.

Welfare-to-work programs require clients to make frequent visits to a number of different governmental and non-governmental offices for eligibility determinations, compliance verification, and receipt of services. Under this system, the location of service providers determines which types of assistance are readily available to those in need.

"Receipt of a welfare check is not sensitive to a client's residential location," said Scott W. Allard, assistant professor of political science and public policy, whose report, published by The Brookings Institution, is available at www.brookings.edu/metro/pubs/20040816_allard.htm. "But under welfare-to-work programs, the lack of proximity to relevant social service providers is tantamount to being denied aid."

Allard studied access to social service providers in Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. He charted the proximity of providers substance abuse and mental health; food assistance; job training; education; non-food emergency assistance to poor populations in each city.

He found evidence of an emerging mismatch in the locations of populations in need and the location of social services. For example, central city tracts in Los Angeles that transitioned from low to high poverty status between 1990 and 2000 had access to 70 percent fewer providers than tracts where poverty rates remained consistently high throughout the past decade. In Chicago, high poverty areas that transitioned to lower poverty rates had access to about 30 percent more service providers than tracts that transitioned from low to higher rates of poverty.

The mismatch between providers and growing areas of poverty may increase under work-first welfare policies that encourage individuals to become self-sufficient and attempt to increase residential mobility of poor households into better neighborhoods.

"It is very possible that the safety net may not be well-equipped to meet the challenge of serving increasingly geographically dispersed needs," said Allard. "We must encourage our communities to regularly assess the fit between service delivery and populations in need, so that we may identify gaps."

Among Allard's suggestions: The use of information technology to improve client referrals and narrow spatial gaps in service accessibility; strategic planning to ensure the location of service providers matches well with the geography of need; transportation assistance; and outreach and marketing campaigns to help overcome information barriers about available services.

The research was supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Fannie Mae Foundation. It builds upon Allard's earlier findings that welfare recipients are more likely to use support services when providers are located nearby.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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