What's Fair for Workfare

Nobody ever said welfare reform would be simple. And its complexities surfaced again during the extended budget negotiations in Washington. Consider one key detail: the budget deal's application of federal fair labor standards to welfare-to-work programs.

Those laws govern hours and wages. The issue at hand, therefore, is whether welfare recipients putting in their 20 or 30 hours a week of required "workfare" should receive the minimum wage, or at least the equivalent. In practice, workfare participants have been getting this level of "payment" ever since such programs were first tested in the early 1980s. A person's benefits become her pay, with weekly hours determined by dividing the dollar amount of weekly Aid to Families with Dependent Children, for instance, by the prevailing minimum wage.

Last year's welfare reform legislation, however, didn't specify a continuation of that practice. It could be argued that the budget negotiators, goaded by Clinton administration insistence, simply added that missing detail for clarity's sake. But nothing's simple in this realm.

The application of the minimum wage law to workfare has been vigorously opposed by some congressional conservatives, and by many governors, who see it as a federal entanglement that will greatly complicate states' efforts to meet the employment levels mandated by the welfare reform law. Administratively, it might be easier to require a certain number of work hours of everyone, regardless of individual benefit levels.

Such concerns are understandable, but they shouldn't outweigh the logic of closely tying hours worked to benefits paid and thus, perhaps, preparing welfare recipients a little better for the real world of work.

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