Reagan plan seeks to shrink welfare lines and boost the job rolls

President Reagan is again seeking to change the welfare equation. In his State of the Union address last week, he called for ``an evaluation of programs and a strategy for immediate action to meet the financial, educational, social, and safety concerns of poor families . . .''

This review of the welfare system is to be conducted and presented by the White House Domestic Council before Dec. 1.

In the meantime, as part of his new budget package, Mr. Reagan has also proposed eligibility changes that he hopes would move more people off the welfare rolls and onto the job rolls. The amendment he proposes concerns the eligibility regulations of the welfare program Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

The changes -- which the President has proposed every year since 1981 -- would require that an increasing percentage of AFDC recipients in each state participate in a job-search or work program in order to qualify for aid. The plan would make it mandatory for states to enroll eligible welfare recipients in job-search and work programs at the rate of 25 percent of recipients the first year, 50 percent the second year, and 75 percent the third year.

The proposal is expected to save the federal government about $52 million in a total projected '87 budget of $7.25 billion.

Behind the Reagan proposal is the expectation that, in order to be eligible for welfare, recipients should be actively looking for a job. Budget savings would be achieved as more people were helped into the job force and off the treadmill of government support programs.

In his State of the Union address, Reagan spoke of ``government's role . . . to create a ladder of opportunity to full employment -- so that all Americans can climb toward economic power and justice on their own.''

But one Democratic congressional staff member characterizes the Reagan plan as a product of the attitude that people on welfare don't really want to work. According to that reasoning, requiring recipients to seek jobs would discourage many from applying for welfare in the first place, thereby trimming welfare costs. Such a view is typical, the staff member says, of the political climate and attitudes of the Reagan governorship of California in the late '60s.

Nevertheless, according to Barbara Levering of the Office of Family Assistance branch of the Social Security Administration (SSA), there is growing support for the idea of linking welfare to the job search.

Since 1981, some 38 states have been participating in programs to get welfare recipients into jobs. One of the major efforts, the Work Incentive Program (WIN), is 90 percent federally funded, and requires a 10 percent state contribution. That program, however, is seen by the administration as largely ineffective, because welfare recipients are not obliged to actively participate in job search and work programs to qualify for aid.

``You had to register with an [employment] program, but you didn't actively have to do anything,'' says Ms. Levering. Furthermore, she feels that the program doesn't go far enough in giving welfare recipients the job-search skills and actual work experience they need.

The Reagan plan would eliminate WIN and instead provide an estimated $200 million to cover half the costs of a variety of federal and state job-search and work programs. States would have to come up with the other half of the costs by providing matching contributions totaling another $200 million.

Some observers are concerned, however, that states be given the autonomy to determine the proportion of welfare recipients obliged to participate in such programs.

``Maybe the thing to do is to turn the states loose and let them try many things,'' says Joe Humphries, an aide to Sen. Russell B. Long (D) of Louisiana, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which is considering the proposals.

Ms. Levering of the SSA particularly advocates the Community Work Experience Program, a federal project in which welfare recipients work, usually on a part-time basis, for a nonprofit or community organization. Under this plan, known as ``workfare,'' the participants' welfare check is their salary.

``It's an on-the-job kind of training, and it deals directly with the problems of most welfare recipients: no recent work experience and no recent references.'' She believes that by giving jobs to people who may not have worked for a long time, or ever, this program ``also deals with their problem of low self-esteem.''

The main question is whether the Reagan amendment will be taken seriously by Congress. Congressional sources say piecemeal changes in the welfare rules are unlikely to be made now, in view of the President's expressed desire for a reevaluation of the entire welfare system by next Dec. 1.

Senate aide Humphries suggests that consideration of any new rules for AFDC should be put on hold for now. ``If you're coming up next year with major changes in welfare, why change now?'' he says. ``We're doing a lot of evaluations right now. Maybe we should wait. Maybe next year [Reagan] will suggest we toss it all out and start fresh.''

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