Survey finds welfare recipients unaware of benefits expiration dates

Nearly 40 percent of current welfare recipients nationwide are either unaware that they face a time limit on federal cash assistance or do not know how long they are eligible for benefits, according to a new report by the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank.

The institute examined data gathered by the 2002 National Survey of America's Families, conducted by research firm Westat. According to the report, families where only the children received benefits were excluded because they are not subject to time limits, as were welfare recipients in Michigan and Vermont, states that provide cash benefits indefinitely to welfare recipients with state funds after federal eligibility expires.

The lack of knowledge about federal time limits was even worse among Spanish-speaking welfare recipients and by those with barriers to employment. According to the survey, prepared by institute researchers Sheila Zedlewski and Jennifer Holland, nearly three out of four Spanish-speaking recipients were unaware of time restrictions on welfare benefits. Half of recipients who did not work for three or more years said they were unaware of time limits, as did 46 percent of recipients who did not have a high school diploma.

The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act set a five-year limit on federal cash benefits to welfare recipients. However, the bill allowed states to exempt up to 20 percent of their caseloads-presumably individuals with serious barriers to employment-from the time limit. Those individuals may continue to receive federal cash benefits. States were also given the option of continuing to provide benefits beyond the five-year limit with their own funds.

The survey results are alarming, according to Zedlewski and Holland because "states' most vulnerable recipients have less knowledge about their time limits than others." These recipients, the authors conclude, "need to understand the policy most clearly… to avoid increasing the number of people who lack both a job and welfare eligibility."

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