States Try to Break Welfare Cycle

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A WAVE of welfare reform is sweeping across the United States.

The changes are propelled by tighter state budgets and by voters' perceptions that the safety net is still too comfortable for a large part of the welfare population.

"The mood of the country has been pretty much that this is a terrible system and that we're ready to entertain nearly any proposal to improve it," says Christopher Jencks, a sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

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That fix-it-up mood has enabled many states to embark on radical restructuring experiments (See related story, left).

One such effort - New York's innovative Child Assistance Program (CAP) - has helped welfare mothers like Shaundre Anderson get out of poverty and into decent jobs without costing taxpayers more than the traditional federal program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

"What attracted me to the program was that you are doing everything on your own; you're not totally dependent on social services," Ms. Anderson says. She has moved from holding a low-paying security job to being a computer operator in the security office of a bank.

CAP's potential lies in its ability to really get people moving toward a career, instead of just bringing their income to the poverty line, advocates say. Both critics and social workers have been frustrated by the dependency and inertia often fostered by traditional welfare programs.

Under the usual welfare rules, for each dollar a recipient earns, the grant is reduced by a full dollar. In CAP, when a working mother is living below the poverty line, for each dollar she earns, the grant is reduced by only 10 cents. When she crosses the poverty line, the grant is then reduced by 67 cents for each dollar earned. Working on welfare

The women in this pilot program all have jobs of some kind, says Jane Lynch, a program administrator in Rochester, N.Y. "The only reason they are on public assistance is that they have children."

CAP does not remove the need for programs that provide basic education and training, says Mary Jo Bane, New York's commissioner of social services. Rather, the program for working parents represents a further step into the world of work.

Reform experiments under way across the country reflect many different approaches to improving welfare. "Most of the electorate is conscious that a lot of things have been tried, and nothing has done much good," says Mr. Jencks, author of "Rethinking Social Policy." Voters are eager to be convinced that something will work, he says.

The Family Support Act of 1988, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of N.Y., pushed states to boost job training, placement, and welfare-to-work provisions. Benefits were made contingent on the recipient's willingness to work. According to Lawrence Mead, a professor of politics at New York University, the modest success of these "workfare" programs has inspired a further rethinking of welfare strategies.

States have begun experimenting with proposals tagged "new paternalism," so named because they couple cutting welfare with trying to control the lives of recipients in ways that have not been attempted before, Mr. Mead says.

Some states encourage welfare mothers to limit the size of families, get married, and keep their kids in school. These efforts "are attempts to apply the logic of mutual obligation, reciprocity, and a social contract to family behavior, where they had been previously applied to employment" in workfare, says Mead, author of "The New Politics of Poverty." Providing benefits and opportunities does not change the behavior of the long-term poor, he says, "whereas these authoritative policies appear to have mo re effect."

Mead adds: "What you can't do is have a program that obligates only a small percentage of the clients to participate."

Jencks says that in the recent recession, the emphasis in welfare reform has been to get people off the rolls by making benefits worse than not working. "If you cut benefits enough, then taking a minimum-wage job will be better," he says. Carrots and sticks

New York's CAP program takes a more supportive approach while still making specific requirements of participants. Women must hold jobs and have court-ordered child support from their children's fathers.

Ms. Bane says that the state's CAP program has been structured so that it is perceived by recipients as an alternative to welfare. Initial tests began in 1988. The program currently involves more than 1,700 families.

"From the beginning, we didn't want the program to look like welfare," Ms. Lynch adds. "When they designed this office, the county architect came in and he made a huge waiting room all glassed in and 13 little offices. We said `No!'

"We only have three or four chairs in our waiting room, because we don't expect people to wait. We have private interviewing rooms with silk flowers and toys for the kids," Lynch says. "The message is: `You don't have to wait because being a single parent who is also working, you are doing all the right things.' "

CAP also gives mothers their food stamps in cash rather than coupons, which carry the stigma of poverty. And because low-wage jobs almost never provide health insurance, CAP allows the working mother and her kids to stay in the Medicaid program for a year after leaving CAP.

One major reason people don't like to get off public assistance is that they lose their health insurance, Lynch says.

But CAP's various benefits and incentives do not seem to be the primary attraction for participants in the program.

"When you are just getting off public assistance, you're scared of failing," says Rose Harris, another CAP graduate. "I would go [down to the CAP office] and talk about anything that was bothering me."

The program's Rochester office has evening hours to accommodate participants' work schedules. "At CAP, whenever you call and leave your number, they get right back to you, and talk to you like you are their friend," Ms. Anderson says.

CAP workers have caseloads of about 60 clients, compared with caseloads of about 220 clients per worker in traditional welfare offices. This higher level of staffing increases the costs of administering the program. But lower payments to mothers who have jobs keep costs down. Cost similar to AFDC

In its first year the program cost no more than AFDC would have, Bane says. "Over time, I would expect decreases in program costs [cash payments to clients] to more than make up for any increases in administrative costs," she says.

New York has received a waiver from federal welfare administrators, who agreed to contribute as much to the Child Assistance Program as they would have to traditional AFDC.

The program gives as big a boost to children as it does to their mothers, Lynch says. Now that "these kids have seen their mother go out and work, are they going to end up on public assistance or not? Are we breaking the chain?" she asks. "I think the kids are going to grow up with a different attitude."

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