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Welfare eligibility may grow

For decades, politicians lamented that the nation's welfare system destroyed poor families by providing assistance only to single parents. Work and Gain Economic Self-Sufficiency, last year's landmark state welfare reform law, was designed to change that.

The new program expanded eligibility to families headed by two parents _ at least on paper. But there was never any money set aside to pay for it.

Until now.

Florida's welfare case load has declined dramatically the last six months, resulting in millions of dollars in savings. That money, welfare administrators say, should be used to expand the program's eligibility.

In a short meeting via conference call Friday, the WAGES board of directors discussed using about $22-million to expand Florida's new welfare system to include two-parent families, among others. The board also discussed expanding eligibility to infirm pregnant women, 18-year-olds who are still in school, and step-parents.

In all, the expanded eligibility for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families will affect nearly 23,000 families, some of whom already are on welfare but will receive additional money, said Don Winstead, welfare reform administrator for the Department of Children and Families. The changes likely will add some families to the state's case load.

The full board of directors will vote on the changes at a meeting April 7 in Tallahassee, said Michael Poole, the board's chairman. The board, which governs welfare reform in Florida, could not achieve a quorum during its conference call Friday morning.

"This significantly changes one of the really destructive aspects of welfare," said Phyllis Busansky, the executive director of WAGES, who supported the proposals Friday. "This moves welfare to a different playing field, as being family-friendly."

"This is an issue of keeping families together," Poole told other board members. "This allows families with two parents to be treated by the same rules of eligibility as single-parent families."

Linda Mitchell, a 41-year-old Tarpon Springs woman who has been without full-time work since February 1996, is among them.

A registered nurse, Mitchell was director of nursing for a Tampa home health agency when she was diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis and deficiencies of the autoimmune system (not AIDS), she said. She has been mostly out of work for more than a year, and her disability payments expired in September.

Pinellas County's social services department provides $241 toward Mitchell's $650 rent each month, but her father must pay the rest. She also has sought help from the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other private charities.

The poverty has been hardest on Mitchell's daughter, Jennifer, a high school student. "She's so embarrassed . . . she won't even have her friends over to the house, because we don't even have a soda to drink," Mitchell said.

"My daughter resents me. She sees her senior year as something to be happy about. But I tell her, "You can't have dinner tonight because there's no food. I'm sorry, but you can't buy notebooks for school because there's no money.' "

Because Jennifer is 18, Mitchell could not qualify for public assistance, the Department of Children and Families told her.

But if the WAGES board approves the changes discussed Friday, Mitchell may receive $179 per month, either until Jennifer finishes high school or turns 19, said Lisa Hutcheson, a department spokeswoman. Mitchell also may qualify for food stamps, although Hutcheson does not know what amount.

For Mitchell, the money would be a windfall. "Now, I have nothing," she said. "I have absolutely nothing. I've pawned my clothes and my jewelry. I'm trying to sell the only thing I have left, my car."

About 4,500 families in Florida will receive either first-time benefits or additional benefits under the rule that expands payments for children who are 18 and still in school, Winstead said. About 7,600 pregnant women who are in their third trimester and unable to work also may qualify for benefits.

Providing benefits for two-parent families may help some 2,726 Florida families, and another 8,115 families may be helped by the provision that allows benefits for unemployed step-parents, Winstead said.

Florida Legal Services, which provides legal help for indigents, had in the past chided lawmakers for moving forward with the restrictive portions of welfare reform while declining to fund those portions that might immediately help people.

Lawyers there were pleased Friday that the WAGES board is seeking to expand eligibility for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

"We're thrilled," said Valory Greenfield, a staff attorney in Miami. "The sooner they implement it, the better."

"For so long, two-parent families were excluded from welfare," Greenfield said. "There are scores of people in two-parent families who, historically, were not helped by welfare. They figured, why go in and apply? They knew they would not be helped. They had not been helped in the past."