The pervasive myth that emerging from welfare through low-level jobs translates into the start of an independent and economically viable life for poor parents has often dominated public assistance policy. Unfortunately, many single parents, often mothers, encounter significant challenges to finding employment and even more difficulty providing for a family on one small income. Recognizing the tragic disconnect between service sector jobs and a living wage, the New York State Department of Social Service established a unique approach to public assistance for single parents. Instead of providing financial support to unemployed single parents, Child Assistance Program (CAP) is focused on supplementing the income of working single parents.
In describing the current social and policy crisis around welfare, site evaluator Heather Weiss, Director of Harvard Family Research Project, writes "We have more and more poor children in serious jeopardy, and a welfare system which is not improving their situation despite recent reform. Welfare reform is stalled and needs a jump start--one that goes beyond tinkering to more fundamental reform that helps families exit poverty." CAP seeks to maximize parental responsibility by operating within a framework that rewards work and supports a parent's attempt to provide for his or her children--which is clearly preferable to the current national policy which does neither effectively. In doing so, the program helps former AFDC recipients find employment, supports parents' efforts to find childcare, and provides for continued Medicaid coverage.
A rigorous evaluation process has been undertaken by Abt Associates, an independent consulting firm, and their preliminary research has shown tremendous results. After one year CAP had impacted 3,000 families. According to the Abt research, CAP has ensured that these participants have an average monthly income of $1,200 (132 percent of the poverty level) which is a clear improvement over AFDC families who are provided with only $800 a month (just 83 percent if the federal poverty level). In addition, Abt reports that 90 percent of participants say that they feel more financially secure on CAP than they did on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Similar percentages report feeling more independent, being more optimistic about the future, and having greater self-esteem since entering CAP. Sixty-three percent of participating parents report that their children feel better about themselves now than when they were on AFDC.
Among its innovations, CAP has eliminated many of the most degrading aspects of public assistance. By reducing reporting requirements, eliminating a resource test, doing away with cash-out food stamps and excessive case management, the program promotes self-reliance and long-term planning among recipients. Mary Jo Bane, one of CAP's founders and a member of the New York State Department of Social Services Commission, writes "one of our basic objectives was to build the program around respect for the integrity and autonomy of the individual" and is certain that this ethos is honored in CAP's implementation process. Staff is trained to be supportive and non-judgmental, and single parents in the program are referred to as 'participants' instead of 'clients,' which reinforces their active and integral role as a parent.
According to Heather Weiss, there is no other program in the country that has revolutionized the concept of public assistance as much as CAP has. New York's willingness to be creative in its approach has yielded an anti-poverty program that empowers single parents and supports their efforts to provide for their families. It has reduced the number of children in New York who live in poverty and has the potential to have great impact on disadvantaged children and single parents across the nation.