Her personal situation may be beyond significant repair, but she certainly knows how to fix the system — and it involves better targeting the help that is provided, so it actually meets parents' needs.

"It's a domino effect," she says, describing how failures in the education, welfare, and job support systems can leave people who want to work and provide for their families unable to meet basic needs of both home and work.

Observing that welfare benefits, according to both state and federal guidelines, expire after a person uses five years' worth, she suggests making people enter some sort of job training or degree program during that period — the full five years is plenty of time in which to make real progress, and most programs are far shorter, particularly non-degree job-skills courses.

Why should we listen to Schidzig's advice? For one, because it's hard-won insight from a life in the trenches of poverty. She says openly what many who know the system well say privately: "You can't cut it on welfare, even if you have housing." That $100 per person per month average benefit is a long way from making ends meet, and if it isn't targeted exactly right, it misses the need.

Another reason to listen to Schidzig is because her prescription is exactly the same as those who propose various ways to fix welfare. This is not to defend a convicted fraudster. But in human terms her situation is nothing like what even conservatives who target welfare for major overhauls want to see: A former teen mother, now 31 and the mother of four, is in prison for a year. Her employment prospects, with just a high-school diploma and a few community-college classes, were negligible to start with. Now they are ruined forever, meaning she and her children are likely to remain on taxpayer-funded assistance for many years to come.


Seeking real fixes

We have already discussed the universal goal of those addressing the welfare system: getting people off welfare and into positions where they are able to feed, clothe, and house themselves and their families (and keep everyone healthy).

There is another goal, though, that many fail to see: reducing the likelihood that people will need welfare in the first place. It's here that welfare reform can make the most difference; it's no coincidence that many of these steps are ones that will also help people who are on welfare transition off of public assistance.

Fixing what's wrong, and smoothing the road off welfare (as well as keeping others out of the program) requires "recognizing the kind of jobs that people leaving TANF are going into," Hastedt says. They're typically low-wage, low-security jobs without significant schedule flexibility or benefits.

That means the working poor — and those people who are poor and looking for work — are missing three things, she says: "access to child care and transportation" and health coverage.

State supports — including the subsidized Medicaid coverage for the working poor — helps what she calls "the people who don't have to go on TANF" because they get help with medical coverage, she says. Similarly, helping people with car repairs and supplements for child care can keep some people off welfare entirely, while providing a smooth landing for those who find work and move toward independence.

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