From President Clinton on down, politicians have made much of the dramatic decline in the welfare population. Since April 1994, nearly 4 million people have left the rolls. The country now has the lowest percentage of the population on welfare since 1970, Clinton says.
But when states reach a crucial deadline in two weeks, the picture on welfare reform will look decidedly mixed.
By Oct. 1, most states will have succeeded in moving 25 percent of their welfare populations into work activities. But many will fail to reach another benchmark: getting 75 percent of their two-parent welfare families into some form of work.
Congress and the Clinton administration view the requirement on two-parent families as an important signal of how hard states are trying to move welfare recipients into work. After all, Washington officials argue, these should be the easiest cases: With two adults in the home, one is available for child care. And they can split the 35-hour-a-week work requirement between them.
If states can't get most of these families into work, some experts wonder, what does this say about states' ability to meet future, stricter deadlines?
At the state level, some officials say the two-parent cases - which represent only 7 percent of total welfare families nationwide - aren't necessarily as easy as they sound. But the bottom line is that a state that fails to make the 75 percent goal could lose part of its federal welfare block grant - a penalty that could total in the tens of millions of dollars, depending on the size of the state.
States that say they may fall short on the two-parent goal include California, Maryland, Vermont, Alabama, Connecticut, Nevada, and Louisiana. States that report they will make the deadline include New York and Massachusetts. Twenty states - those that implemented welfare reform later than others - have longer to reach the benchmark.
"I think the goal for two-parent families is unrealistically high," says Steve Gold, the welfare-to-work programs director for Vermont. "We find that a lot of two-parent families need some significant investment if they're really to obtain and maintain employment over the long haul."
Vermont exemplifies the complexities involved in enforcing such a seemingly simple deadline. The state has elected to stick with its own welfare-reform demonstration project, which in some aspects contradicts the federal reform. And so far, Vermont has not heard from the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) how the state's two-parent caseload will be judged.
In addition, Vermont has one of the higher proportions of two-parent families on welfare in the country - 1 in 8 families. The reason is that the state eliminated some of the barriers two-parent families faced in qualifying for cash assistance, to encourage families to stay together. Now, ironically, Vermont may end up paying a price for assisting all these families.
At the other end of the scale, states with low proportions of two-parent families also report having a hard time getting 75 percent into work. In all of Alabama, for example, there are only 52 two-parent families on welfare. With such a small sample, there's little margin for failure.
Other states complain that HHS has yet to issue the regulations governing welfare reform, making it difficult for states to know such basics as how to define a two-parent family. In some states, a two-parent family where one parent is disabled would not be categorized as "two-parent" on the welfare rolls.
HHS says the lack of issued regulations is no excuse for states not to be working on getting their two-parent families into work.
"The states have known all along that they had to move families into work and work activities, and that for two-parent families in particular, they had a much higher expectation level," says HHS spokesman Michael Kharfen.
Some states, such as Maryland, may avoid the possibility of federal penalties by paying two-parent families' benefits with state money. In Maryland's case, the size of the potential penalty - $11 million - is large compared with the size of the two-parent population, 350 families.
Then there's the question of how tough HHS will be when the numbers come in. In the past, when states failed to make benchmarks under the old welfare-to-work system, called JOBS, no fines were assessed. But times have changed. Congress is watching, and expects results. States will be allowed to plead a good-faith effort and hope for leniency. But welfare reform is a signature issue for the Republican Congress and the Clinton White House, and some states may have to pay up.
And even if states are confident they can make this year's benchmarks, some officials are highly uncertain about the future.
"As tough as it is, it gets even tougher," says Dick Powers, spokesman for Massachusetts welfare reform, noting that in a couple of years, 90 percent of two-parent families will have to be involved in work activity.
Is he confident Massachusetts can make that cut? "No!" he guffaws.