Declining Welfare Rolls

President Clinton has proclaimed welfare reform a success, citing a 24 percent decline in caseloads since he took office. The president also lauded a 1.4 million person shrinkage in welfare rolls since his signing last year of a landmark reform law.

The president can be excused, perhaps, for claiming political credit in this arena. Getting rid of "welfare as we know it" has been a theme of his presidency, and a badge of his status as a "new Democrat."

But credit for declining assistance rolls is diffuse, at best. To start with, of course, quite a few Republicans would like to claim credit. But politicians of whatever stripe are of small significance compared with the still vibrant economy, which has created enough jobs to ensure a drop in the numbers of people seeking public aid.

Another big factor is the ongoing push toward welfare-to-work programs at the state level. Widespread experimentation with ways of getting people off assistance and into a job started long before last year's bill was passed, and continues. States now have direct responsibility for making reform work. The feds, however, still have a say in how things are done.

Last spring, for example, they nixed Texas's plan to thoroughly privatize its welfare system. The Clinton administration drew the line at allowing private contractors to decide eligibility for food stamps and Medicaid, saying that violated federal law.

But privatization remains a goal among states pushing for greater reform. Its projected savings - millions in administrative costs - are enticing, and many private firms stand ready to take on the work. Arizona, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and Indiana are among states actively seeking to privatize all or part of their welfare activity. The question in every case should be: Are private contractors not only saving money, but meeting the goal of successful job placement for recipients?

California, with the nation's largest number of welfare recipients, just enacted a reform bill that both firms up the state's commitment to reduce rolls and put people to work, and recognizes that many will need continuing public help. The law includes increased funding for child care and drug treatment, for example - two keys to preparing some hard-to-place welfare recipients for employment.

The California legislation is a reminder that the test of reform is not how many people leave welfare, but how many leave for good and start climbing the economic ladder. Those figures won't be out for a while, and they may not be heartening unless needs like child care, transportation, training, and education are a big part of the reform mix.

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