ANCHORAGE - Five years after the state launched a welfare reform effort, it is revamping how it works with needy families to untangle the cumbersome and sometimes ineffective welfare bureaucracy.
The stakes are high for Alaska's poor.
Dozens of people who have used up all five years of their benefits are being bumped off the cash assistance program. In the new approach - to be tried first in Anchorage in mid-August - welfare applicants will be put on a 10-day fast track to employment.
The same state worker who does the initial interview will guide the client during those 10 days. The worker, called a work force development specialist, will help the client polish interviewing skills and look for work through online job listings, newspaper classified ads and calls to desired employers.
"What we are doing now is helping people get a fast start," said Ted Sponsel, regional manager for the state Division of Public Assistance in Anchorage. In welfare lingo, the goal is "rapid work force attachment."
Thousands of Alaska welfare recipients have left the assistance rolls for work voluntarily in the five years since strict work rules and time limits were put in place to reform the welfare system. As of June, the count of Alaska families on welfare was about 7,400, down from 12,500 when the Alaska Temporary Assistance Program began in July 1997.
As families drop off, others get on, though not as many and for not as long. Just 7 percent of the families on welfare when the reforms began have used up their five years of benefits.
Parents in many of those hard cases struggle to work because of disabilities, problems with alcohol or drugs or difficulties with English. Some, such as a mother with recurring breast cancer, have good reason to keep getting benefits beyond the five-year limit, state review teams have determined.
Others have not.
"There comes a point where you have to take personal responsibility for your life," said Stephanie Hoyt, assistant regional manager with the Division of Public Assistance in Anchorage.
Since October, teams from the division and other organizations have been sitting down with long-term welfare recipients to find out why they aren't working and whether the state has done all it could to help them.
So far, the teams have reviewed about 400 families. About a quarter didn't push for more time on welfare. The review teams allowed most of the rest - about 80 percent - to extend their stays on welfare. Many are physically or mentally disabled or have disabled children.
The remainder, such as parents with drug or alcohol problems who refuse treatment, were told they will be cut off from cash assistance. But they still can get help, such as food stamps, child care, Medicaid for the children and housing assistance, said Chris Ashenbrenner, director of the public assistance division.
"I don't want people to think 'You are on your own,' " said Ashenbrenner, who years ago was on welfare herself.
Her staff is trying to keep clients from getting to that point.