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20 years after welfare reform, 'deep poverty' worse in Washington

Monday marked 20 years since the welfare system was overhauled by the federal government. The reforms have played out differently in every state, including Washington.

The 1996 reforms ended some welfare benefits, and in turn encouraged people to find work by offering job-training and money for things like child care.

The federal government wanted to reduce the amount of people relying on welfare. By that measure, it has worked in Washington state.

Before welfare reform, about 75 percent of poor families in Washington were on welfare. Now, that's down to 33 percent.

But Jennie Romich said there's another way to look at it. She's with the University of Washington's School of Social Work and the West Coast Poverty Center.

Romich: "If the concern is the financial well-being of poor families, it has not been a success."

Romich says the problem of "deep poverty" in Washington has gotten worse under welfare reform. Those are people with income less than half the federal poverty level. In Washington, 26 percent of poor families were in deep poverty in 1996; 40 percent were in deep poverty in 2014.

At the same time, there is less cash assistance from welfare available.

Romich: "They're not getting much. A single family with two kids is [receiving] about $500 a month, and that's not enough to pay the rent really anywhere in the state, much less pay for things like clothing or utilities or transportation."

She said the current welfare system doeswork for people who truly need temporary assistance, like if they go on maternity leave or have a sudden financial crisis.

Romich said the state of Washington has tried to help people in deep poverty over the last 20 years.

For a while, state officials ignored the rule that cuts people off from cash assistance after five years. Then the great recession hit, and the state couldn't be as generous.

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