For more and more low-income Americans, the welfare clock is running out. The five-year, lifetime limit on benefits, perhaps the toughest feature of the 1996 welfare reform law, is rolling into effect, more quickly in some states than in others.
At the moment, most attention is focused on New York, where some 38,000 reached their welfare deadline as the calendar turned to December. With a recession declared, there's a strong temptation to view this development in Dickensian terms: the poor being victimized again. But that's certainly an oversimplification.
Many families will be hit hard by a cutoff of federal aid. There's a danger that some could slip through the bureaucratic cracks and end up on the streets. But many states have backup plans to deal with those who clearly still need public assistance. New York, for example, has a state safety net in place for people who lose benefits.
The federal welfare reform law itself allows states to exempt 20 percent of their caseloads from the cutoff. Some states have been lobbying to increase that percentage. And former recipients are still eligible for food stamps, Medicaid, and emergency aid for children.
So, for most people, the bottom won't simply fall out. And it's crucial to remember that for many people who used to depend on public aid, the welfare-to-work push has meant a boost out of dependency. The states that have managed their programs well, providing for such needs as child care and job training, have seen dramatic reductions in welfare rolls - reductions that are likely to hold.
Without question, however, the recession will give welfare reform its acid test. Can states, facing declining revenues, sustain crucial work-preparation programs? Can the private sector sustain its absorption of people coming off welfare?
States, local governments, private agencies that serve the poor, businesses, and Washington should team up to answer those questions with as strong a "yes" as possible. The long-term success of the welfare-to-work project is too important to neglect.