Two Ahead, One Back

IN the perennial effort to lift people out of poverty, the United States took two steps forward April 1. Regrettably, some slippage is expected to offset part of the gain. Such is the crumbly footing in which welfare policy seems always to tread. One of the progressive steps - long overdue - was an increase in the federal minimum wage. Since 1981 the minimum wage has been stuck at $3.35 an hour, even as the country surged through a historic economic expansion, and as inflation eroded the wage's buying power. This month the rate jumped to $3.80 an hour, and next April it will rise to $4.25. Although it still does not provide a ``living wage'' for a poor worker with a family, the enhanced minimum will certainly help many Americans whose lives toe the poverty line.

The other promising development is a new federal law designed to get poor people off the welfare rolls and into economic self-sufficiency. It provides transitional benefits to help welfare recipients enter the workforce.

States, with assistance from Washington, are required to give Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) recipients - mostly single mothers - child-care and medical-benefits subsidies for one year so that they can take entry-level jobs or, alternatively, enter job-training programs that the states are obligated to set up.

The bad news? In each case, the ``law of unintended consequences'' will take back some of what Congress gave.

Take the hike in the minimum wage. It will eliminate some low-paying jobs, as employers try to keep wage costs down, and it may be inflationary, as producers pass the higher costs to their customers. In addition, some poor workers will lose in food stamps what they gain in higher pay, leaving them with little net gain.

There are also problems with the program to turn AFDC recipients into wage earners. Even after one year of subsidized benefits, how many of these poor women will be able to stay in the workforce and afford child care? Then there's the grave shortage of day-care providers. And, as always, there's the question of money: Many states are strapped already, without the added costs of the federally mandated workfare benefits. Some states have cut back in existing benefits for the working poor to meet the new AFDC expenses.

This is not to disparage these latest federal initiatives to put not only dollars but enhanced dignity into the lives of the poor. Even with their shortcomings, the minimum-wage hike and enhanced workfare benefits are useful steps that we support.

But America can't relax. Long-term solutions to poverty are elusive, but the search must go on.

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