COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Gov. Nikki Haley's Democratic opponent said Wednesday her administration hasn't moved more than 20,000 people from welfare to work as claimed, since many of those people still earn so little, they continue to receive government assistance.
State Sen. Vincent Sheheen accused Haley of being dishonest by implying that more than 20,000 people secured a job that took them off assistance rolls.
"It's wrong, dishonest and deceitful," said Sheheen, D-Camden. "You've got jobs where people are working two or three hours a week, and that's being claimed by Nikki Haley as being a job and moving people off benefits into work, and clearly that's not so."
Beyond including meager jobs that don't pay a living wage, he said, the numbers also include people who temporarily get off welfare but then lose a job and re-enroll. Department of Social Services officials confirmed his statement. But according to the agency, 93 percent of people who exit welfare with jobs stay off assistance for at least three months; 78 percent stay off for at least two years.
DSS officials say even a part-time job results in less assistance.
"Gov. Haley has always believed that the best way to take care of our South Carolina families is to provide more and better opportunities for them to find work in our state — and that is exactly what the welfare to work program has done," said Haley spokesman Doug Mayer. "The governor knows that working is one of the keys to the American Dream." He repeated that the program has moved "over 20,000 South Carolinians from welfare to work."
Earlier this month, the administration gave updated figures of nearly 25,000 since February 2011.
Most of those counted refer to families who stopped qualifying for welfare payments after getting a job. To qualify in South Carolina, parents must earn less than half the federal poverty level. That means a mom with two children stops receiving welfare after getting work that pays the equivalent of a $9,900 yearly salary. Many of those families still qualify for food assistance, what's commonly called food stamps, since the income threshold for that is higher, though the benefit amount declines.
Unlike welfare, childless adults can receive food assistance. Roughly 6,000 of those counted in the welfare-to-work figures are people receiving only food assistance, who get any job, no matter how few hours, as long as it pays minimum wage, according to DSS. Sheheen referred to those as "fake jobs."
DSS officials point to the program's job training services. A person's job, plus training, must equal 30 hours a week. For example, someone who gets a part-time job of 10 hours weekly must participate in 20 hours of other preparation, whether that's volunteering to earn experience, getting help earning a GED or writing a resume, or taking classes on interview skills, said Karama Bailey, DSS's acting state deputy director for economic services.
"We get a lot of people who come with no experience and lots of barriers," she said. Training provided in the program will eventually lead to jobs that enable them to support their families, she said.
Sheheen said fewer people have moved from welfare to full-time jobs since the agency began paying outside contractors millions of dollars to run the program. He pointed to a chart showing that 9,500 people obtained full-time work in 2012-13, compared to 13,984 in 2010-11.
The agency said that's explained by an improved economy that resulted in fewer people seeking assistance, and those on the rolls having less work experience.
In July, DSS provided a total of $2.7 million in monetary assistance to 12,615 families, impacting 21,717 children. That compares to 20,700 families, including 35,850 children, helped in January 2011, who were provided a total of $4.6 million, according to data on the agency's website.