ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The landmark welfare reform bill is 20 years old today. It was signed into law by Bill Clinton and overhauled the way the government distributed cash assistance. The reforms gave states a lot of flexibility in handing out money. Some states have been more successful than others when it comes to helping the poor.
Chris Lehman of the Northwest News Network reports that Oregon is one of the places that's done the best job.
CHRIS LEHMAN, BYLINE: A big goal in Amber Lakin's life is to ring this bell someday.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
LEHMAN: The bell is in the lobby of a nonprofit called Central City Concern in Portland. It means that someone has found permanent employment. Lakin is working toward that goal in an office just behind that lobby. She helps fill orders and arrange deliveries for the organization's coffee roasting business.
AMBER LAKIN: So I definitely make more than my food stamps and my TANF combined.
LEHMAN: TANF is what welfare is called now. It stands for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The program where Lakin works is a way for people like her to learn basic office skills with the goal of eventually landing a full-time job. The training and the paycheck she's getting here is part of Oregon's plan to help welfare recipients become self-sufficient.
Lakin says a few years ago, she was addicted to meth and trapped in an abusive relationship.
LAKIN: He controlled everything that I had, how I had it, how much I had. And I had exhausted every single resource as far as, like, friends and family to be able to help me. And it got to the point that they wouldn't help me anymore.
LEHMAN: Lakin got into a drug treatment program. She also applied for TANF. Lakin credits her case manager with the Oregon Department of Human Services for helping to bring some order to her chaotic life. The agency's Kim Fredlund says developing a meaningful relationship with TANF recipients is one of the program's goals. In fact, the state is no longer calling them case managers.
The new job title is family coach.
KIM FREDLUND: A coach's role is really about encouragement. It's about, you know, helping to challenge someone when they're struggling with something, teaching them and really helping them move forward.
LEHMAN: And Fredlund says that Oregon is trying to run the program more like a for-profit business.
FREDLUND: We are delivering a service to them. It's not pizza. It's a much more important service. But we do deliver a service that, you know, can impact people's lives pretty dramatically.
LEHMAN: Fredlund says the change even extends to the physical appearance of field offices.
FREDLUND: When I first started with the department 25 years ago, you would walk in and they had the bullet-proof glass and the little round circle where you would talk to the receptionist.
LEHMAN: Now the lobbies have a more open floor plan and better lighting. The agency's commitment to the program is backed up by state lawmakers. Last year, the Oregon Legislature used savings from the drop in caseloads following the recession to raise income thresholds and allow more people to stay on longer.
CHUCK SHEKETOFF: It's not as bad here as some other states, but we still have a stubborn poverty rate.
LEHMAN: Chuck Sheketoff is head of the Oregon Center for Public Policy, a left-leaning think tank in Portland. The state's poverty rate is right around the national average, but nearly half of its families with children in poverty receive TANF benefits. That's well above the national average and one of the main reasons Oregon's venture into welfare reform is considered successful.
Still, Sheketoff thinks the state should make it easier for people to get on the program, but he gives the state credit for at least preserving the basic concepts behind welfare.
SHEKETOFF: Clinton said he was going to end welfare as we know it, and some states just ended welfare. And that was wrong, and that was heartless.
LEHMAN: Nationally, there are about 4.1 million people on federally funded cash assistance programs. But Kathy Edin, a poverty expert at Johns Hopkins University, says that number doesn't tell the whole story.
KATHY EDIN: Half of those are in just two states, California and New York, meaning that in many states across the United States, there is virtually no welfare system at all.
LEHMAN: But that's certainly not the case in Oregon where about 54,000 adults and children live in households receiving TANF benefits. And for recipients who take part in the state's job training program, a high percentage are able to move off TANF altogether.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hey, you.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: How are you?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Good.
LEHMAN: People like Amber Lakin, for whom the welfare system was key to getting her back in the workforce. It also gave her the stability she needed to regain custody of her son, who's getting ready to enter kindergarten this fall.
LAKIN: My son today tells me, like, I'm a good mom and that, you know, he loves me. Especially a child that's been in and out of foster care, it's hard to imagine that they would ever feel that way about me.
LEHMAN: And Lakin says for her, that's the biggest victory of all. For NPR News, I'm Chris Lehman in Portland, Oregon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.