Don't hurt welfare's successes

Not so long ago, Michelle Alexander of Bath, Maine, was struggling to make ends meet. She was sleeping on a friend's couch while her infant daughter stayed with family members, so Ms. Alexander could hitchhike back and forth to her low-wage job. She was also receiving public assistance.

Now she's a proud college graduate and off all public assistance, thanks to Maine's Parents as Scholars program (PAS), an innovative approach that enables people to move off welfare permanently by helping them earn a college degree.

Now Alexander works in social services. She explains, "As a direct result of the help I received from PAS, I am gainfully employed in rewarding work, earning a good salary, and I am full of hope about my family's future, knowing we will never have to rely on welfare again."

Maine's PAS program is one of many experiments states have tried since 1996, when the nation's welfare law was redesigned to include time limits and work requirements. Many of the successful approaches will be jeopardized, however, under President Bush's proposals for the law's re-authorization under debate in Congress. His plan Â- which adds federal mandates Â- would hamper states' ability to take an individualized and compassionate approach to reducing poverty.

Maine, for instance, has used a flexible program that factors in the needs of its most vulnerable families. It has found ways to provide child care, transportation, and healthcare benefits so that a single, low-income parent can keep a job. Families dealing with disabilities, special-needs children, low education levels, or remote locations have been given more time and support to ensure a stable transition into the workforce.

Maine designed the Parents as Scholars program to allow those on welfare to earn a college degree Â- two- or four-year Â- while still receiving payments. For many on welfare, post-secondary education is a ticket to lasting financial stability and success. Maine offers dramatic proof.

A recent study found that graduates of PAS increased their earnings by nearly 50 percent Â- from an average of $8 an hour to $11.71 an hour. In contrast, those who left welfare without a college degree earned an average of $7.50 an hour Â- a wage that will not sustain a family of three. College graduates are also much more likely to receive employer-sponsored benefits. PAS participants are juggling their studies, their families, and often a part-time job, while maintaining a grade-point average of 3.4.

The president's plan ignores such successes. And the new mandates would force Maine to shift state dollars from PAS to "make work" programs, in order to meet Bush's increased work requirements.

His proposals include:

• Level funding of federal welfare block grants to the states. If funding is not increased, at least to keep pace with inflation, the real value of the grants will be reduced by 22 percent between 1997 and 2007. This places additional stress on states to fund welfare programs, especially if caseloads increase during an economic downturn. The result will be elimination of some important supports for family success.

• An increase in the number of hours that families must participate in "work activities" from 30 hours to 40 hours. For families living on the edge, this would mean less time to find adequate housing (no easy task), take classes to advance skills, and focus on their kids.

• Narrowing the range of activities that are counted as "participation." His provisions ignore pre-employment training, vocational education (now allowed), and activities that overcome barriers, such as life-management classes. Instead, his plan would move families into workfare-type jobs, which rarely lead to meaningful job placement or permanent escape from welfare.

Equipping families for success is hard work, but it brings great rewards. Since 1996, Maine's caseload has dropped from more than 19,000 families to about 11,000.

Why not recraft the 1996 law based on strategies with proven track records?

States need cost-of-living increases in their block grants and more flexibility in addressing individual family needs Â- not proposals that turn the government's back on those needs, rely on risky and unproven strategies, and lack compassion and common sense.

• Wendy Rose is on the staff of the Maine Centers for Women, Work, and Community.

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