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Multiple Impacts of Welfare Reform in Utah: Experiences of Former Long-term Welfare Recipients

The call came forth to “end welfare as we know it,” and so we have. This study of Utah’s long-term welfare families represents a commitment by the Utah Department of Workforce Services (DWS) to understand and document the situations of families as they reach the mandatory three-year lifetime limit for receipt of cash assistance. It also represents a snapshot of a historic time of change. This study reflects transitions at both societal and individual levels. 

At the societal level, the AFDC program that had been in place for over 60 years was replaced by a time-limited program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). The individual transitions documented here reflect this broader change. The long-term welfare recipients described were familiar with, and often dependent on, the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. Their experiences adjusting to TANF are in some ways unique to their cohort. Indeed, their difficulty understanding the reality of lifetime limits and related policies may not be experienced by their successors in the Family Employment Program (FEP).

That said, one of the themes emerging from this study is the challenge of communicating new policy realities to a population with serious, multiple and persistent barriers. That challenge is complicated by the societal transition: policies are changing frequently in an effort to develop and perfect the TANF programs. From the clients’ perspectives, these changes are confusing. Many of those who reached their time limits did not believe their cash assistance would really be terminated. Some were unaware how extension criteria work. They may not have understood that changes in their circumstances might affect their eligibility for an FEP extension. Still others reported that workers had, at their discretion, allowed them a few “extra” months before assistance was closed.

These misunderstandings may reflect ambiguities that emerge from the natural desire to “individualize” the FEP program. There is an inherent tension between “individualizing” and “standardizing” social policies. Individualized policies allow for worker discretion in allocating services and resources. Usually, the relationship between worker and client is productive, and this discretion serves to optimize program benefits for the clients. But in the inevitable case of animosity or tension between client and worker, policies that allow for individualized decision making can seriously disadvantage the client.

The findings of this report underscore the pivotal character of the worker-client relationship. When clients perceive workers as supportive and encouraging, their general impressions of the FEP program are complimentary, even if the final results are not exactly what they were hoping for. Those who experience judgmental or indifferent interactions with their workers are left feeling they have little recourse or support.

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Last Updated: 12/6/19