WASHINGTON — Sweeping changes in how the US deals with its poorest residents start in earnest this week, as the historic welfare reform bill takes effect.
Welfare as we know it is over. Welfare as it will be is not yet defined, as state officials across the country struggle to deal with the new social policy powers and responsibilities that they've inherited from Washington.
Proponents of the reform say the poor will now take control of their lives, freed from an initiative-sapping dependence on federal handouts. Critics worry that thousands will be pushed onto the streets and steam grates of the nation.
The legislation's true effect will not likely be known for years - even decades - as its ramifications ripple through the US social service system. But one thing seems clear: After years of rhetoric about requiring work in exchange for welfare support, America will now give "workfare" a serious try.
The old social contract, which guaranteed aid for poor children and caregivers, ended on Oct. 1, with a new fiscal year.
"A workfare requirement of this order is enough, in and of itself, to start driving people off the welfare rolls," judges Lawrence Mead, a welfare expert and professor of politics at New York University.
The first official transfer of welfare power took place Monday. In what was described as a routine procedural move, the US Department of Health and Human Services approved the welfare plans of Michigan and Wisconsin, the first two states to submit outlines under the terms of legislation passed by the GOP-led Congress and signed by President Clinton in August.
Nine other states - Ohio, Florida, Vermont, Massachusetts, Maryland, Oregon, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Maine - have also sent Uncle Sam their welfare-reform guidelines. The plan submission deadline isn't until next July, but quick action would benefit most states. That's because the grants welfare administrators will receive under the new law are based on old welfare caseloads, many of which have declined in recent years. Michigan, for instance, figures its windfall at about $150 million.
Extra cash or not, many states aren't yet ready to begin taking control of their welfare destiny. Goals of the reform legislation are daunting: Under its terms, half of all welfare recipients must be moved into jobs by 2002. Recipients will be limited to five years of total benefits. In return for money from the new Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grant, states must completely administer their own welfare programs.
The federal government and such liaison groups as the National Governors' Association have been deluged with questions from state officials. Among other things, many want to know the official definition of "work," how to handle legal immigrants (the new law cuts off many benefits to noncitizens), or what happens if they miss welfare legislation deadlines.
State welfare offices used to be places that cut checks and investigated fraud. Now they're full-service administrations. Just installing the information systems needed to track the five-year lifetime requirement will be a tough challenge. "There are just so many pieces of this to implement," notes Sandy Danziger, a welfare expert at the University of Michigan.
Different parts of the country - and different jurisdictions - have varied implementation problems. States with many legal immigrants, such as California and Texas, are worried the loss of immigrant benefits will hurt their local economies.
Cities such as Detroit that have a high percentage of residents on welfare, plus a small inner-city job base, worry about transporting beneficiaries to suburban or rural locations where work can be found.
Still, many states have chosen approaches for their programs. Among them:
*Wisconsin's plan provides for cascading categories of types of work. Recipients who don't find private employment may be eligible for subsidized, trial jobs, or community-service work.
*Michigan is building a $50 million fund against the possibility that a recession will strain its welfare budget.
*Maine intends to give large one-time payments to those in need, rather than a continuing monthly series of small checks.