Reagan-era welfare: Washington gives push to self-help

Five months after its inception, the federal ''workfare'' program is the focus of intense debate.

The stance taken by supporters is summed up by Robert Carleson, special assistant to the President for policy development. Workfare, he says, is ''an idea whose time has come,'' a program that gives the taxpayer a return on the ''welfare dollar.'' Mothers should be happy to ''work for their welfare checks, '' Mr. Carleson says.

Opponents vehemently disagree. Boston welfare rights activist Sherrill Twine, a single mother who has worked her way off Massachusetts welfare rolls, calls workfare ''a 'worknapping' of women at minimum wages. The government calls all the shots in a program that provides neither training nor jobs that get women off AFDC (Aid for Families with Dependent Children).''

The concept of workfare, a misnomer for what social workers call ''work relief,'' dates back to the 1930s. At the federal level, its current form is called Community Work Experience. President Reagan signed this provision into law as part of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981.

Nationally, workfare has been applied to general welfare (excluding ADFC) recipients in 19 states. But the new federal work experience measure reverses past policy by permitting states to force AFDC recipients to accept minimum-wage jobs with social services agencies or risk the loss of benefits.

States, apparently eager to cut rising welfare costs, support workfare programs as a phase of welfare reform, says -Edgar A. Vash, a legislative analyst for the American Legislative Exchange Council in Washington, D.C. Workfare advocates say the savings come as recipients, placed in a job, work their way off the role faster than someone not working but receiving benefits.

So far, 11 states have adopted compulsory workfare: Programs approved by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are in full operation in Michigan, South Dakota, New York, Ohio, and North Carolina. Massachusetts, Delaware, West Virginia, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Arizona have HHS-approved plans not yet in full operation.

Calling workfare ''more economical and more efficient than CETA (the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act),'' Mr. Vash says the US program is patterned on the nation's oldest and best-known state-financed work relief program, Utah's Work Experience and Training (WEAT), founded in 1974. He says the Utah plan has placed 7,500 welfare recipients in 40 types of jobs, has detected more than 3,000 cases of fraud, and has stressed social benefits.

''We help our people gain job skills and self-confidence,'' said Usher West, coordinator of WEAT, an agency that requires clients to work 96 hours a month. ''And it is not expensive either.''

But county officials prefer programs leading to ''long-range employability to move people off public assistance'' over ''work for benefit'' programs, says Bernard F. Hillenbrand, executive director of the National Association of Counties Research in Washington.

His position parallels that of a report published last June that claimed workfare programs do not catch welfare cheats, have high administrative costs, and do not develop jobs that move most people off welfare. The report, entitled ''Workfare: Can It Really Solve Our Welfare Dilemma?'' by Karen Turner and Karen Eastman, appeared in the June 1981 issue of County Employment Reporter. The study favors job training programs such as the Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA) over workfare.

Prior to the adoption of the new federal program 26 states had run work-incentive programs, which encouraged and trained AFDC mothers to work. But seven have opted out because federal funds for the programs have been cut, says Margaret Bengs of the HHS New England Region.

Unlike Utah's experience, public opposition from human service agencies and community leaders in Massachusetts has caused Gov. Edward J. King to delay implementation of the state's new AFDC workfare project, Work and Experience Training (WETP). Approved by HHS Dec. 4, 1981, WETP was scheduled to begin Jan. 4, but the starting date has been set back to ''some time in February.''

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