Welfare reform has become such a success story that both presidential candidates are trying to claim some of the credit, and neither feels compelled to put the subject high on his domestic agenda. But that, in fact, is where it still belongs.
The effort to "end welfare as we know it" really took off in 1996, with passage of a federal law that limited the time people could spend on welfare and mandated a transition to work. Some states had begun that process even before Congress passed the law, and the transformation over the past six years has been remarkable. States have seen welfare rolls shrink, with decreases of 50 percent or more in some areas.
But that's not the whole story. Many states have now hit major bumps in the road toward reform. Most important, they're finding that after a certain point continued reduction in the welfare rolls becomes much more difficult.
In most cases, this is because those remaining on the rolls have such daunting emotional, mental-health, or addiction problems that getting and holding a job becomes problematic, at best. So how do you keep the momentum going?
A few states, like Indiana, are discovering that you simply have to adjust the strategy of reform. Beyond job placement tips, people may need drug rehab, counseling on how to balance family and work demands, even help learning to set an alarm clock and meet a starting time. Clearly, this work will require a renewed commitment to make welfare reform compassionate, as well as efficient.
A second major challenge involves helping people make the transition to work and self-sufficiency a permanent one. While lots of former welfare recipients have gotten work, their wages are at such a low level that they're still mired in poverty, and can easily teeter back toward public dependency. Minnesota is pioneering one answer to this dilemma. Its experimental Family Investment Plan allows continued public assistance, along with wages, until a family's income reaches 40 percent above the poverty line. A recent study noted that the plan's participants, compared with those in the regular welfare program, experienced greater economic stability.
And not only economic stability. Participants also had more stable marriages, more new marriages, and less spousal abuse.
Any approach that helps people get more firmly on their feet will give reform's success story added credibility.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society