THE strongest evidence yet is in that the federal government's new approach to welfare - focused on educating and employing welfare recipients - works.
The validation comes from a report released today on the largest "workfare" program in the United States, California's Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN), which was established in 1985. The program - which in 1989 became part of the federal Jobs Opportunities and Basic Skills Training (JOBS) program - has demonstrated impressive strides in this state that is home to one-sixth of the nation's welfare recipients.
The study of GAIN was conducted by the Manpower Demonstration and Research Corporation (MDRC), a New York-based non-profit institution that tracked 33,000 people who entered GAIN from early 1988 to mid-1990. The study also looked at a control group of welfare recipients not enrolled in GAIN. While both two-parent families and single-parent households benefited from the program, single mothers with school-age children showed the biggest gains - and the gains increased as the program progressed.
The single parents' earnings jumped 16 percent more than the control group in their first year in GAIN, 24 percent the second year. At the same time, single parents' payments from Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the main welfare program, dropped 5 percent lower than the control group the first year and 7 percent the second year. (See chart for overall results.) Clinton's welfare reform
Welfare experts say that GAIN's results should play an important role in the ongoing debate over reforming welfare. As a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton pledged to overhaul the welfare system, but since then, little action has been taken. For instance, President Clinton still has not appointed a commission to reform welfare that he promised on Feb. 3 would be set up within 10 days.
Now, the GAIN results provide "evidence that you can change welfare and make it different," says Judith Gueron, president of MDRC, which conducted the GAIN study for the California Department of Social Services.
Paul Offner, chief health and welfare counselor to the Senate Finance Committee, says GAIN provides a blueprint the Clinton administration can follow. "Here are all these new administration people trying to come up with something different when the evidence is showing us maybe we should concentrate on what we've got," he says.
"These results underscore that part of [Clinton's welfare] transformation needs to involve a greatly expanded JOBS program," agrees Mark Greenberg, senior staff attorney at the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy.
But researchers stressed several reasons for caution in evaluating the GAIN study. First, California offers several training and job programs not available in other states. Second, its welfare grant levels are among the nation's highest. Finally, parents with preschoolers were not required to participate in GAIN.
"Some approaches may work better than others," says Dr. James Riccio, who directed the GAIN study. "The challenge is to identify the best ones and adapt them to new settings."
The JOBS program, set up under the 1988 Family Support Act, provides up to $1 billion annually for state welfare-to-work initiatives. But it has been hamstrung by the fact that many states cannot put up the matching funds needed to tap federal dollars. As a result, only about $600 million to $700 million of JOBS funds is now being used. Of that, GAIN accounts for about 12 percent.
Many states have tried their own welfare experiments, which do not use JOBS funding. New Jersey and Wisconsin, for instance, have tried to limit funding to families that have more children while on welfare.
"My impression is that JOBS and GAIN are doing as well and better than any of the alternatives," says Christopher Jencks, a sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Results vary by county
The new GAIN study looked at six California counties with about half of the state's welfare population: Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Diego in southern California; Butte and Tulare in the Central Valley; and Alameda in the San Francisco Bay area. Results varied greatly among geographic areas - in large part because the local programs were different, with some stressing education and others finding a job quickly.
Welfare recipients in Tulare County, a farm region, "produced almost no significant earnings gains or welfare savings over the two-year period," the study found. This was probably due, in large measure, to a high unemployment rate (14 percent).
By contrast, welfare recipients in Riverside, a fast-growing suburban county 65 miles east of Los Angeles, experienced the most dramatic results. In its second year, Riverside's GAIN program raised participants' earnings by an average of $1,179 - 53 percent higher than for the nonparticipant group.
Lawrence Townsend Jr., director of social services for Riverside County, attributed the gains to a highly committed staff.
"We worked on motivation a lot and sold clients on the value of getting off welfare to boost their own self-esteem," Mr. Townsend said. "If they turned up their noses at an entry-level position, we convinced them you can't get promoted and make more unless your foot's in the door."