Welfare Reform Becomes More Urgent in Many States

UNDER budget pressure, half the states in the country are now experimenting with ways to change a burgeoning ``welfare culture.'' In general, the experiments are aimed at moving those on welfare from ``stop and stay'' to ``up and out.''

The efforts are driven by a staggering $210 billion spent annually on welfare by both the states and the federal government. In the past five years, more than 3 million recipients have been added to welfare rolls, Donna Shalala, secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), noted last week before Congress.

A total of 25 states, including 10 designated during the Bush and Reagan administrations, now have demonstration projects designed to cut welfare benefits, tighten and restrict eligibility, and demand that recipients look for jobs. Many states have introduced other innovative, and sometimes controversial, measures to monitor or change recipient behavior and to train or educate.

Fifteen of the states have moved urgently toward their own welfare reforms in the past 18 months without waiting for Congress. As a former governor, President Clinton believes states know best how to shape and implement federally funded state programs. This kind of encouragement from Washington has increased under Mr. Clinton.

Last week, a California appeals court reversed a 1992 decision to lower welfare benefits stemming from a federal waiver granted to California during the Bush administration. The court said the state had not taken into consideration the resulting hardships on families. The ruling could influence future actions by other states in seeking waivers.

But much of what states are doing to reverse the bureaucratic and social nightmare that has become the welfare system has already found its way into the Clinton proposal.

For instance, California and some counties in New York require fingerprinting as a condition of eligibility; Colorado now allows recipients to have savings of $5,000; New Jersey and Georgia have stopped raising benefits for additional children in a welfare family; Virginia sends child-support payments (from ex-husbands) directly to the family; Illinois establishes paternity through adjudication if needed; Iowa requires all clients to participate in the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills program and develop a Family Investment Agreement; and Ohio requires all pregnant teens receiving benefits under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program to attend school and thereby earn $62 a month more in benefits.

All of the above, in one form or another, are contained in the Clinton plan. HHS Secretary Shalala said the Clinton program has four key elements for recipients: 1) a personal employability plan, 2) training, education, and placement assistance to move people from welfare to work, 3) a two-year limit, and 4) work requirements. ``To achieve this,'' she said, ``we have given states and localities flexibility in designing the exact mix of JOBS program services.''

In addition, under a separate plan developed by Vice President Al Gore Jr., states are being encouraged to eliminate welfare checks and food stamps. Use Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT), Mr. Gore says, to provide benefits through a tamper-proof ATM card. Welfare fraud has been estimated to be as high as $1 billion a year. Maryland, the only state fully operational with the EBT system, has cut fraud by 42 percent after one year. Nine other southern states are expected to be using the EBT system by 1996 - and Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Wyoming are already in the early stages of implementing the system.

``Because welfare is funded by states and the federal government, there is plenty of flexibility for a state to set eligibility rules or the average monthly benefit,'' says Melissa Skolfield, an HHS spokeswoman. ``But any other new proposals have to be cost-neutral to the federal government, and the states must apply for a federal wavier if trying a new approach.''

All demonstration projects will be evaluated by the federal government. HHS has granted the waivers to the states in response to Clinton's mandate.

LATE last month, Wisconsin was granted a federal waiver to limit or ``cap'' cash benefits for women who continue to have babies while on welfare.

``Across society, wages are not increased when families have additional children,'' said Wisconsin Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson at a press conference, ``and they shouldn't be in the AFDC program.''

The Wisconsin legislature, with Mr. Thompson's support, voted to disconnect from the federal welfare program by 1999 and change to a leaner state program. Massachusetts Republican Gov. William Weld, in vetoing new legislation regarding his state's welfare plan this week just before the annual state governors' conference convened here, also threatened to end the federal program in the state.

As of the first of the year, 231,403 individuals received some kind of welfare in Wisconsin. A woman with one child receives $440 a month in cash benefits, $517 a month with two children, and $617 a month with three children. When the new ``cap'' is implemented in next January, a woman who has a child 10 months after going on welfare will receive no additional cash benefits.

In 1993, Wisconsin spent $159 million on welfare payments. Last year, HHS agreed that two counties in the state could implement a ``Work Not Welfare'' program.

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