One controversial feature of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, aka ‘welfare reform,’ was the unprecedented imposition, with few exceptions, of an across-the-board limit of five years (shorter at state option) on adults’ receipt of federally-funded cash assistance. However, because some recipient families have complex, difficult problems that are not easily or quickly resolved, PRWORA also included a ‘hardship exemption’ provision. This allows states to provide federally-funded aid beyond 60 months, but to no more than 20 percent of their caseloads. The 60-month time limit clock began to tick in Maryland in January 1997, and consequently, families began to exceed the limit in January 2002, the 61st month of the ticking clock. More than 10 years later, the clock still ticks. As each month passes, the number of families nearing the time limit and thus becoming potentially eligible for a hardship exemption ineluctably increases.
Thus, it behooves states to continuously monitor where they are vis-à-vis the 20 percent cap and to have a solid understanding of their time-limited and hardship populations should the 20 percent cap be reached. If and when this happens, difficult rationing decisions would have to be made about which families would be exempted and which would not. Alternatively, state general funds would have to fill the gap, a gap that could get larger with each passing year. Neither scenario is appealing, but thankfully the most recent estimates are that Maryland is at least a few years away from reaching the 20 percent cap. Moreover, because of its commitment to data-driven decision-making, the Family Investment Administration of the Maryland Department of Human Resources and its research partner, the Family Welfare Group at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work have tracked the time-limited population for many years and issued multiple reports on the subject.
Today’s report adds to our available body of knowledge on this subject by looking at the universe of 7,143 Maryland cases which exceeded the 60-month limit on benefit receipt and were granted a hardship exemption (so that benefits did not cease) between January 2002 and August 2010. Specifically, we use administrative data to describe demographic and case characteristics and cash assistance utilization patterns of the hardship population, the extent of their participation in work activities, the nature of the activities to which they are assigned, and the barriers which are documented as being present in their lives. To determine if there have been any changes over time in the size, distribution or composition of the hardship caseload, we present findings by time period cohort: January 2002 through December 2005 (n=4,746); January 2006 through December 2009 (n=2,035); and January 2010 through August 2010 (n=362). (author abstract)