Get a job and get off welfare: It's an equation that doesn't always add up to getting out of poverty. As the nation increases its experimentation with ``workfare'' and employment-training programs aimed at moving welfare recipients into jobs, welfare rights advocates warn against overlooking an important point. Even though these programs have helped move some individuals off welfare and into the work force, they say, many of these new workers are earning wages so low that they are still living in poverty.
``The bottom line is that these programs are a good idea, but we're going to have to do more, if we're interested not just in reducing welfare lines but in reducing poverty,'' says Dr. Judy Gueron, president of Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation , a nonprofit organization that has studied the effectiveness of several state workfare programs. (Thirty-nine states have some form of workfare.)
In Massachusetts, for example, the state's widely praised Employment and Training Choices Program (ET) has helped find jobs for some 25,000 welfare recipients, saving the state an estimated $107 million in the nearly three years the program has been running.
According to a recent study based on 1985 data and prepared for the American Friends Service Committee, however, a single mother with two children who found a job through ET wound up with only about $15 a week more than the welfare package she gave up -- earning a yearly net salary of $8,568, nearly $500 below the poverty line of $9,100 for a family of three.
Even under the higher wages ET graduates earned on average this past August -- nearly $6 an hour -- a typical earner still comes out only about $30-to-$40 a week ahead of welfare payments, say economists Teresa L. Amott and Jean Kluver, who co-wrote the study.
Despite such present shortcomings, ET still earns high marks from welfare reform activists and welfare rights advocates, who offer special praise for the program's financial commitment to helping pay child-care costs for single mothers getting off welfare. ET officials also recognize the wage problem and are now trying to find higher paying jobs for their trainiees. In addition, even workfare programs that are mandatory -- unlike ET -- are considered important steps toward welfare reform by many liberal and conservative experts in the field.
But many of these experts also warn against oversimplifying the enormous effort required to break out of poverty, especially for single mothers, who make up 98 percent of families receiving Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the federal government's main welfare program.
These experts are concerned that with the expected release in December of a presidential commission's report on welfare reform the debate's complexities may get lost in a stampede toward quick solutions.
``The motivating force in a lot of welfare reform discussion is not concern for the well-being of the family, but who's paying for what and why,'' says Steve Savner, who works for Massachusetts Law Reform, a welfare rights group.
``The issue for a lot of people is simply how do we run more effective welfare programs,'' he says, ``not how do we ensure that people have an adequate income.''
Like many other experts, Dr. Gueron ofunderscores the fact that welfare recipients in general welcome workfare programs -- even if the jobs provided are simply community-service jobs -- because of the sense of self-worth they gain in working.
But as the reform debate intensifies, Gueron says there is a risk that work requirements for welfare recipients ``will be seen as the solution, rather than a solution.''
In shaping welfare reform, he says, several other important elements need to be included, such as increased enforcement of child-support payments, job-creation programs, and remedial education and training.
S. Anna Kondratas, a conservative health and welfare specialist formerly with the Heritage Foundation, agrees that workfare is not ``a panacea for dependency.'' Although she supports work requirements as an important part of welfare reform, she argues that people have to be more sensitive to the difficulties faced by women trying to work themselves and their children out of poverty.
Ms. Kondratas also insists that unwed fathers must be made more accountable to their families -- and that the concept of workfare should be extended to include both parents, even when one is not living with the family.
``Why not workfare for fathers?'' she asks. ``The way workfare is set up now, it sort of absolves the father. It makes the mother . . . both the primary caretaker and the primary earner, and that's not fair. . . .''