Fresh Try at Welfare Reform Will Rely on State Efforts

CLINTON failed in congress but he allowed governors to experiement

LILKE a balloon releasing hot air, the 103rd Congress came to a sputtering close and headed for a recess unable to accommodate many of President Clinton's wishes, including that of ``ending welfare as we know it.''

Reforming the nation's estimated $210-billion welfare system (combined federal and state costs) was central to the president's campaign in reaching the White House. But once there, and despite the administration announcing a detailed welfare-reform plan in June known as the Work and Responsibility Plan of 1994, Congress took no action. With the failure of health-care reform, say analysts, any momentum on welfare reform was also lost.

Still, through a federal-waiver process encouraged by the president, some 16 states were added to the list of those experimenting with major changes in state welfare this year.

In fact, all 50 states including Puerto Rico are now implementing some kind of federally approved welfare-reform initiative, many started under the Bush administration. President Clinton, an ex-governor, regards states as proving grounds for welfare-reform ideas.

According to Donna Shalala, Secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, more than 14 million Americans now depend on monthly welfare checks, and in the last five years over 3 million have been added to the welfare rolls in states. Most welfare recipients are single mothers.

``States are working under the burden of limited resources,'' says Judith Gueron, president of Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, a social policy research organization in New York. ``If the welfare debate is enjoined again next year,'' she says, ``evidence from the state's reform programs would be too new to speak to feasibility, but they can speak to process.''

The National Governor's Association (NGA) reports a ``striking consensus'' among states to encourage work and reduce reliance on welfare. The Clinton administration emphasized that the welfare system should be a temporary stopping place on the road to employment and independence.

Data collected by the NGA reveals that more than 30 states have either proposed or are implementing changes in the area of encouraging and rewarding work by a welfare recipient, and reducing penalties on earnings and savings. Previously, recipients were not allowed to save significant amounts of money.

``Several states are now experimenting with allowing recipients to have savings accounts,'' says Sharon Long, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute in Washington D.C. Colorado, for instance, now allows up to $5,000 in savings for employed recipients.

But Ms. Long also says some state experiments reveal the difficulties facing true reform. ``A pattern that is consistent across states is that education and training programs don't move people very far toward better income and a better job,'' says Ms. Long. ``There is an increase in hours of employment but not in the wage rate, and there are limits as to how many hours people can work.''

The Urban Institute concluded that a reform program in Washington state operating between 1988 and 1993 was virtually a failure. The program added financial incentives to recipients for training and education, substituted cash for food stamps, expanded supportive services for child care, and focused service more on pregnant and parenting teens.

The program failed because it had to be scaled back significantly to stay within the budget. A more accepting environment apparently reduced the stigma of being on welfare, too many participants reduced the time the staff could spend with clients, and many clients' lack of knowledge hampered their full participation in the program.

``If anything, the program suggests that large-scale welfare reform faces a bigger challenge than we might have thought,'' says Long. ``When we talk about getting young mothers off welfare, we are not talking about moving them out of poverty. Most of the young women have limited educational background and will have minimum wage jobs.''

Other states are experimenting with time limits on welfare benefits. Beginning in January of 1995, for example, Wisconsin will limit recipients in two counties to 24 months of welfare payments.

``The success of welfare reform is going to depend on people's ability to have a reasoned discourse on the details of a plan,'' says Ms. Gueron, ``because in welfare the details matter, and there are no easy solutions. I think the challenge is whether or not in the current environment that discourse can occur.''

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