Now that President Clinton's signature is on federal welfare reform, the state officials responsible for making it work face a daunting prospect: How to put hundreds of thousands of people in jobs over the next few years.
These are, for the most part, people with little or no work experience and minimal education. Most are single mothers whose children will have to be placed in day care. And many are stuck in urban settings with sluggish local economies.
The hope, over the long term, is that the new paradigm - assistance as transition to work - will take hold, that people once stuck in dependency will acquire the knack of finding work, and that welfare costs will sharply decline.
The fact, in the short term, will be significant state investments to build a workable "workfare" structure. A number of states have ongoing welfare-to-work experiments, and those who have followed these programs estimate a cost of $2,000 to $4,000 per job to place welfare recipients. Multiply that times the 4.5 million or so adults currently on welfare.
Every state faces a deadline - generally two years after the new federal law is implemented - for moving most of its welfare caseload, 70 to 80 percent of recipients, into some form of work. The states with work-development efforts under way have a head start, though most programs are relatively small in scale. Still, they indicate what probably lies ahead on a much larger scale. For example:
*Subsidized employment in the private sector. Oregon's Jobs Plus program uses money that formerly went for benefits such as food stamps to pay part of the starting salary for a welfare recipient. Companies thus have an incentive to hire, and new workers get as much support through wages as they had received through public assistance.
*Tax credits for employers. Some states, including South Carolina and Connecticut, are planning to give employers a state income tax credit in the range of $1,000 to $1,200 for each former welfare recipient they hire.
*Public-sector employment. New York City already has a large-scale program of employing people on public assistance in cleanup details around the city. Parks, public buildings, and schools are among the work sites. But city officials have until now been employing primarily childless aid recipients. When thousands of mothers on Aid to Families with Dependent Children join the ranks, a huge increase in slots could be needed if the public-job approach remains a primary emphasis.. A few states are considering setting aside 10 percent or so of entry-level jobs in all state agencies for welfare recipients.
*Intensive job-search and placement programs. These operate on the assumption that the primary need is quick experience in the private job market. As soon as individuals go on public aid they are taught basic job-hunting skills and sent out to find work. Riverside County, Calif., has the best-known program of this kind.
The coming welfare overhaul, to meet its goals, will need the widest possible participation by all sectors of society.
In the District of Columbia, a private agency called Capital Commitment has successfully prepared former welfare recipients for telecommunications jobs, starting with basic installation work. Nonprofit community agencies might be a prolific source of jobs - but only if government helped fund the salaries.
While work opportunities are of central importance, they don't complete the picture of successful reform. Training, education, and most urgently, care for the children whose mothers will be going to work are all indispensable. All will demand commitment, time, and money.
No one should forget that the fundamental aim here is not a quick reduction in social spending but a healthier society in the future.