DES MOINES, IOWA — DONNA DAVIS has been on and off welfare for 35 years. She has three children, each by a different father, but has never been married. Lacking a high school diploma, she has had trouble finding jobs adequate to meet her needs.
Getting Ms. Davis and 4.5 million other adults on welfare nationally to the point of self-sufficiency is one of the most controversial challenges Congress and state governments face.
Lawmakers from Boston to Sacramento are turning to time limits as a way to force recipients to become financially independent. Republicans have passed such a provision in the House, and 11 states now have programs limiting the duration of benefits.
But Iowa is the only state so far to actually remove people from its rolls, making it an important first indicator of whether such an approach will decrease dependency or increase despair.
Proponents say time limits are necessary to wean people from a system that has fostered illegitimacy and perpetual poverty. Critics counter that forcing people off welfare could bloat homelessness and devastate children. Some 9.4 million children receive benefits from the main welfare program, Aid to Families With Dependent Children.
A look at the program here underscores a central truism in the welfare debate: Governments can reduce welfare roles simply by ending benefits, but helping recipients find a permanent place in the work force requires significant resources.
''If the terms of successful welfare reform are to reduce the rolls, just eliminate the program,'' says Evelyn Brodkin, a sociologist at the University of Chicago. ''To increase the prospects for people to enter the labor market in a way that gives them a shot at making it, that requires education and training of sufficient quality, and decent day care.''
Iowa's experimental program, authorized under a federal waiver issued in late 1993, is predicated on the principle that each individual has different impediments to work. The state tailors a contract with each recipient to help the individual overcome those obstacles. People are placed on various tracks to help them achieve the education and job training they require, and can receive additional support such as medical and child care.
The contract ends either when the recipient reaches the point of self-sufficiency or breaches the terms of the agreement. If the latter occurs, the recipient faces loss of all benefits in six months and a mandatory waiting period of another six months before being eligible to negotiate a new contract.
''What's really important in our program is the individualized nature,'' says Charles Palmer, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services. ''The supports that people need as they make the transition are also important to address. Identification of barriers that really do stand in the way is important. I don't think it's just an automatic that everyone on welfare can today walk out into the labor market and be self-sufficient.''
Every Wednesday and Friday Ms. Davis sits with a group of welfare recipients in a class-like setting at what is called a job fair to hear prospective employers rattle off openings. On a recent Friday, the opportunities for employment were surprising: database consultants, bakers, and accounting clerks, to name a few, all paying $6 to $8 per hour, with benefits promised after a certain period.
For the welfare recipients here, the job fair is mandatory -- part of the contract they sign with the state to move toward self-sufficiency.
Most recipients, like Davis, voice approval of the new program. ''I'm not on welfare by choice, but because of low education,'' she says.
Participants like it
Her welfare contract states she needs to complete her high school equivalency diploma and develop work skills. ''The new program makes you willing to go out there and find work.''
Antoinette Newsome agrees. In the middle of a divorce and having to support four daughters, she lost her part-time job at a department store when she missed work to take care of an ailing child. Now Ms. Newsome sees the Iowa program as a quick way to get back on her feet financially.
''I don't need the system, I need a job that is financially sound -- $7.50 or $8 per hour maybe,'' she says. ''I feel this program is going to propel me back into full employment. The medical benefits will help.''
A promising start
Since October 1994, the Promise Jobs program has helped more than 1,400 people find jobs, well over a 1,000 of whom are still employed. This, in turn, has helped lower the average welfare grant by roughly $30, saving the state more than $1 million per month.
''The new program has new formulas for balancing benefits and wage earnings,'' says Darrell Jensen, a work-experience coordinator at Promise Jobs. ''By policy we cannot require anyone to take employment that would decrease their income.''
While the early indicators point to success, Professor Brodkin is cautious. She expresses concern that what works in Iowa won't necessarily work in other states.
With one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation -- roughly 3 percent -- and little of the poverty found in large cities, the Promise Jobs program benefits from a strong job market. Further, not all states have the same level of organized, professional caseworkers administrating the program at the local level.
''There is a great divergence among the states,'' she says. ''Quality, usefulness, and punitiveness -- some may be good, some bad, but there is no accounting of their net level.... Adequate funding is not to be expected in all states.''
What happens to those recipients who lose benefits because they either breached their contract or refused to negotiate one is harder to ascertain.
Iowa has removed roughly 900 families from the rolls since the new program started. Although the state has tried to track these families, it hasn't been able to keep track of more than half of them. Some probably move to other states with less punitive measures; others may have become homeless.
What happens to these families is important, because other states that are experimenting with time limits provide less support for recipients trying to make the transition from welfare to work. Further, the Senate is about to take up the House welfare plan, which limits families to a lifetime maximum of five years of public assistance.
The Clinton administration also supports the idea of time limits, but differs with Republicans in Congress over the education and job-training provisions. If Washington is able to pass a welfare-reform package that includes time limits, it will open the door for all states to implement a provision that looks promising but has a relatively short track record.