Evolving Welfare Reform

When the federal welfare reform act passed in 1996, it was clear this legislation would go through years of reassessment and fine tuning. But the basic idea, now as then, is sound: to move people from dependency on welfare to the dignity of work.

This is, however, a complex undertaking. Some facets of the law were bound to be challenged on moral, practical, or legal grounds.

One such challenge recently resulted in a Supreme Court striking down a part of the law that allowed states to discourage so-called "welfare shopping" by out-of-staters. The court ruled that holding new arrivals in a state to a lower level of welfare payments than other residents was constitutionally impermissible.

This decision answers one concern about fairness raised by the '96 law. A broader concern, all along, has been that welfare-to-work programs be run with sensitivity to individual circumstances and abilities. Child care and transportation can be critical needs, and state programs that pay attention to them are more likely to move people toward permanent employment.

Individuals can all too easily fall through cracks in the system, sometimes losing public benefits they should receive. For example, many former welfare recipients don't realize they're still eligible for Medicaid, the federal-state health-care program for the poor. This makes life harder than it needs to be for many. Making sure people are informed about government benefits they are entitled to is part of the required fine-tuning.

Another part of this work is effective use of welfare-to-work funds provided by the federal government to the states. This money is earmarked for welfare's hardest cases - those with little education or work experience and a long history of public dependency. But about $3 billion of these funds have gone unused by states.

It may be argued that people have been leaving the welfare rolls in such numbers that states have trouble finding folks to spend the money on. Yet studies also show a growing concentration of welfare recipients in large cities. These urban dwellers, whose communities often present dismal employment prospects, are exactly the people who need greater help with training and transportation. Perhaps state officials should temper their trumpeting of shrinking welfare rolls and focus in on these needs.

This, after all, is reform's biggesttest - how to keep momentum going when you're dealing with a sizable remnant of recipients who are the most dependent on government help and the least prepared for work.

Milwaukee's Project New Hope offers some lessons. It started five years ago as a private effort to help the chronically poor move up the economic ladder. Participants were guaranteed jobs, as well as services such as child care. The project chalked up some modest successes - including significantly improved performance at school by the young sons of participating families. But it also found a stubborn obstacle: a defeatist attitude that kept many people down despite the help provided by the project.

In laying the groundwork for permanently improved lives, reformers need to find ways, as they limit benefits, of lifting spirits as well. That part of the job requires resources far beyond government dollars.

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