States Try to Break Welfare Cycle
A WAVE of welfare reform is sweeping across the United States.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."