Making Welfare Reform Stick

From the figures offered this week by President Clinton about welfare-to-work, this project appears to be right on track. Every state is moving people off the dole and into some kind of employment.

Yet these statistics don't tell the whole story. It's true that states are responding impressively to the 1996 welfare-reform law. At 7.3 million, welfare rolls are half the size of six years ago. Of those still on welfare, 35 percent either have a job (states generally allow people to work and still receive a portion of their benefit for a limited time) or are training for one.

But behind the hopeful figures lie complicated dilemmas. One is a disturbing 27 percent drop in the number of poor people eligible for food stamps but not getting them.

When people get jobs that pay well enough, they may in fact lose eligibility for food stamps. But millions of former welfare recipients with low-wage positions are still eligible, and a third of them have trouble feeding their families, according to an Urban Institute study. They could use the helping hand food stamps offer.

The red tape of applying for federal food aid probably keeps some people away, particularly if they no longer have a case worker to help with the application. Also a factor is the stigma of holding onto any form of public aid.

To lower these barriers, state agencies should do a better job of counseling former welfare recipients about the availability of food stamps and how to apply. The federal Agriculture Department, which administers food stamps, should move to simplify regulations. A General Accounting Office report out this week urges quicker action on that front.

In addition, officials should work to pitch food stamps not as "welfare" but an effort to boost nutrition, particularly for children.

States can also make welfare reform stick by making sure that any excess federal funds they receive are used to subsidize the day-care and work-transportion needs of former recipients. It must not be used for other purposes, as some in Congress want.

National welfare reform is still young. Let's make sure federal money earmarked for reform adds solidity to the encouraging statistics.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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