States Step Up Pace of Programs To Curtail Welfare `Dependency'

Massachusetts, other states may blaze a trail for national reform

WITH President Clinton making slow progress with welfare reform at the federal level, states from Vermont to California continue to experiment with new ideas to break a cycle of dependence.

In Massachusetts, for example, Gov. William Weld (R) is introducing a bold plan to change the state's public-assistance system that would require individuals receiving welfare for two years to either enroll in a job-training program, do community volunteer work, or find employment.

The plan would apply only to welfare recipients who have no children or school-age children who are not disabled. If implemented this fall, the program, state officials say, could save an estimated $500,000 by next June and $23 million within three years.

"We don't think this is an enormous request to make of someone who has been on welfare for a long time and is getting a lot of taxpayer assistance. We think this is reasonable," says Robert Bliss, Massachusetts welfare-department spokesman.

Mr. Weld's plan is in line with nationwide efforts to cut down on rapidly increasing costs in today's system.

Indeed, encouragement from the Clinton and Bush administrations has prompted about half the states to experiment with welfare reform. The Family Support Act of 1988 has also pushed states to implement more training, education, and work opportunities for those receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) funding. Currently, 13 states have received federal waivers that allow them to make reforms. Turning system on head

"The states have been asking for waivers to do some more experimentation, to see what really does work," says Linda McCart, social-services program director for the National Governors' Association in Washington. "There was a firm belief that we need to kind of turn the system on its head."

Both liberals and conservatives call the current system - jointly funded by states and the federal government - costly and inefficient. And while progress has been slow at the federal level, states are jumping into the fray with innovative ideas.

Weld's idea of time-limited benefits is not unique. Mr. Clinton supported time-limited benefits during his campaign, and the state of Vermont is planning a similar "workfare" program.

Other approaches will be closely watched. One recent buzz phrase is "new paternalism," a reward-and-punishment approach that some states use to encourage recipients to have stable families and healthy children, go back to school, or get job training and employment.

States may offer financial incentives or sanctions to parents who make sure children attend school regularly and are immunized, for example. Using the sanctions approach, New Jersey and Wisconsin do not extend extra welfare benefits for families that have additional children.

How effective these programs are is still an open question, although some pilot programs have been successful.

Ohio's Learning, Earning, and Parenting (LEAP) program, for example, offers a carrot-and-stick approach that has won praise. The program pays teenage parents an extra $62 if they attend school regularly and takes away $62 if they do not. A recent evaluation of LEAP showed that 61 percent of teens in the program stayed in school, compared with 51 percent of another group of teens not enrolled in the program. Schooling successes noted

"We do know that it is successful in keeping people in school and bringing dropouts back," says Dr. Judith Gueron, president of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation in New York that conducted the evaluation.

Besides offering incentives and sanctions, states are also removing barriers in the system. Current welfare rules discourage AFDC recipients from working, getting married, or starting businesses, critics say. Missouri's "The 21st Century Communities" project helps ease the transition from welfare to work. It allows welfare recipients to continue to receive Medicaid insurance and day-care support up to 48 months after finding a job.

While liberals applaud Missouri's program, they voice strong opposition to the time-limited-benefits approach. They argue that forcing recipients to work or perform community service stresses busyness rather than helping people find employment. Clinton's reform efforts have also been put on the back burner due to other priorities, including health-care reform and the budget.

In Massachusetts, Weld faces opposition from a Democratic-controlled General Court (legislature). Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Massachusetts Human Services Coalition, says the governor's program should allocate more resources toward job training, day care, and making the transition from welfare to work easier. "It isn't welfare reform. It's a forced-work plan that doesn't do anything to prepare anyone for leaving the welfare rolls," she says.

Under Weld's plan, welfare recipients must sign a "self-sufficiency" contract outlining their responsibilities. AFDC recipients of school-age children must make sure that young children have good attendance and are immunized or benefits will be reduced. A provision also allows single working mothers who receive child support and welfare to keep more child-support money.

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