Welfare reform is not a five-year project. That's perhaps the fundamental point to keep in mind as Americans mark the fifth anniversary, Aug. 22, of President Clinton's signing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.
That act has not accomplished everything its proponents might have hoped for in terms of moving former welfare recipients toward economic independence. But neither has it been anywhere near the disaster some of its detractors predicted.
Without question, welfare reform has changed millions of lives. It ended the option of open-ended government support. The single mothers who made up the bulk of recipients had to seek work, which meant they often had to reconsider their family arrangements. Welfare rolls in most states have plummeted by 50 percent or more. A vibrant economy probably helped that trend, but the main contributor was the government's push toward work.
Some studies show an accompanying trend toward more two-adult households - sometimes a newly married couple, others just cohabiting.
Many former welfare recipients say they're glad to have some sense of self-sufficiency. Most say breaking into the job market has been difficult.
Rising above minimum wage
The difficulties can be acute.
Most of the jobs open to ex-welfare recipients, even after retraining, pay $8 an hour or less. They're often part-time - not providing enough income to raise families above the poverty line. As yet, there's no general correlation between leaving welfare and rising above poverty.
As people stay employed and progress on the job, that correlation should strengthen.
But staying employed can be a major challenge for a woman with children who require care. Sometimes older siblings are put in charge of younger children. But one study indicated that adolescent children of mothers who have moved into workfare programs have been doing worse in school, possibly because of added tensions at home.
Such findings point to the importance of closely watching this process. The states with the most success have diligently tried to aid the transition to work, offering help with child care and transportation, and making sure people take advantage of government aid still available, such as food stamps.
Governments may have to become even more activist to reduce the rolls further. The people still on them are often those with the most problems, from little education to drug or alcohol addiction.
Drug and literacy tests in Ontario
Helping them may require a combination of compassion and sternness. In Ontario, Canada, which has had its own push toward welfare reform, the provincial government is about to require drug and alcohol screening of remaining recipients. Those who show signs of addiction will have to enter rehabilitation programs or possibly lose their benefits. Ontario is also planning to force illiterate welfare recipients to upgrade their grasp of language and numbers. The idea is to get people ready to hold a job.
That kind of approach could be the next step in welfare reform. Congress and the Bush administration have big decisions ahead on extending reform, once the '96 law expires next year. The work is far from over.