What's wrong with welfare - and a new push to change it

Welfare. To some 10.8 million individuals in the United States, two-thirds of them children - 44 percent of whom are black - the word means food, shelter, and access to medical care. To some more affluent Americans, such public assistance is viewed as an undeserved handout. But today, conservatives and liberals agree, the time for welfare reform has come. Dec. 1 is the deadline for recommendations from the the White House Domestic Policy Council on family and welfare programs. And many private organizations are also looking for ways to improve welfare.

Established originally as a cash grant program to aid needy children without fathers, the welfare system has expanded over the past two decades to become a tangle of social programs costing some $250 billion in federal outlays in 1984.

Still, despite the stereotype of black mothers on welfare, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and the negligible amount spent on child support enforcement are relatively low budget priorities. AFDC constitutes 7.2 percent of all the income-security programs administered by federal and state governments. Other programs are food stamps, supplemental security income (SSI), social security, housing assistance, and the supplemental food program for women, infants, and children (WIC).

The lion's share of federal outlays for public assistance, nearly $200 billion, goes into social security benefits, an entitlement program of great benefit to the middle class.

According to a study by the Children's Defense Fund, in 1974 there were 75 children receiving AFDC for every 100 children in poverty. In 1984, there were 50 children receiving AFDC for every 100 in poverty. Last year, a total of $8 billion was spent on AFDC, the chief government cash assistance program for the poor. This sum amounted to 7 percent of US government interest payments for the national debt ($111 billion), and less than 4 percent of the amount spent on defense ($227 billion), according to the children's advocacy group.

Thus, while the poverty population has increased over the past 15 years, federal outlays have not kept pace with the growing need. Within the first seven months of the Reagan presidency, some $25 billion in cuts were made in programs affecting the poor.

Daphne Busby, founder of The Sisterhood of Single Black Mothers in New York and one-time welfare recipient, challenges legislators to look beyond the welfare stereotypes.

For the 4.8 million blacks who receive welfare - 13 percent of all blacks in the US - this issue is critical.

The most common type of household receiving AFDC benefits is that of the single mother with two children, one of whom is under six years of age. June O'Neill, assistant staff director for programs and policy at the Office of Civil Rights, says that ``contrary to recent studies, 16- to 24-year-olds are likely to spend less time, not more, on welfare.''

``The fact is, we simply haven't spent enough time studying the population to be able to say whether the daughter of a teen mother is more likely to become welfare dependent than any other poor person's daughter,'' she says.

Of the welfare recipients questioned during four months of research by the Monitor, most estimated that ``cheats'' constitute between 30 and 50 percent of all welfare recipients. Yet none could point to specific examples of cheating. In fact, there is less than 3 percent actual recipient fraud in the AFDC program, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. And some studies show that with medicaid, for example, there has been as much - if not more - cheating by providers of services.

In terms of the individual household benefit, welfare hardly pays enough to be called a ``free ride.'' New York, among the states with the highest benefits, pays about $7,490 in food stamps and AFDC to a one-parent family of four. This figure is far below the official poverty line of $10,989.

More-important aspects of the system are the disincentives to marriage and work.

Payments in half the states are made only to households without adult males present, which many experts believe has the effect of further undermining family stability. Marriage may be seen as a drawback if the income of an unemployed or underemployed potential husband cannot compete with the benefit received by the single mother.

Two state programs are attempting to remedy the disincentives for work.

In Massachusetts, the Employment and Training Choices Program (ET) is viewed by many as a success. Gov. Michael S. Dukakis attributes some $207 million in savings in 1986 to the program. One of its key facets is the child-care provision, provided to recipients for up to a year after they find a job. Some analysts, hesitant to overbill the program's success, point to Massachusetts' booming economy, relatively low unemployment rate, and the fact that 30 percent of ET graduates find only part-time employment. A crucial component, health care, is now being designed for newly employed mothers who are not otherwise covered by medicaid benefits.

In California, Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN) represents a compromise between supporters of education and training and those who believe compulsory ``workfare'' is essential to any program's success. Welfare recipients in California who are not able to find work in the marketplace are assigned jobs in the public sector or with nonprofit agencies.

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