The Other Roller Coaster

With headlines tracking fortunes made or lost on the world's stock markets, the fortunes of those on the lowest economic rungs are all too easily forgotten. But in the United States the poor are on a roller-coaster ride of their own, though it bears little resemblance to Wall Street's.

That bumpy ride is welfare reform. While its goals remain laudable and even achievable - the ending of dependency through work experience - its processes can have jarring ups and downs.

As nearly everyone anticipated, welfare-to-work programs are chalking up divergent track records, depending on local and regional economies. Connecticut, a small state with plenteous work opportunities, has one of the toughest policies on ending welfare benefits. The state just cut off payments to hundreds of families who had reached its 21-month time limit. Many parents losing their benefits had found jobs, though many also worried about how long the job would last - a problem everywhere for people just getting a toehold on work.

Connecticut also has been relatively generous in granting six-month extensions to families whose prospective breadwinners can show they made good faith efforts to find work, or whose efforts have yielded only part-time jobs with inadequate pay.

Far to the south, in places like Mississippi's delta region or South Carolina's depressed rural counties, welfare reform can be a harrowing ride, indeed. Nearly 16 percent of Americans living outside of urban areas are considered poor (with pre-tax incomes of less than $12,641 for one adult and two children). Economic deprivation can go back generations, to when farm automation threw legions out of work. And distances to places where jobs do exist - whether catfish plants in Arkansas or hotels on the Carolina coast - can be daunting.

Still, the experience of landing a job can be a definite "up" for a single mother who has never worked before. It's just that the outlook for sustaining that experience is often clouded by a five- or six-hour commute, iffy transportation, and child-care arrangements that are ad hoc and worrisome. The big step of moving to where jobs exist may appear logical, but it can also be terrifying to someone whose personal safety net - of family and friends - has always been in the same small country town.

Despite the rough spots, the experiment will go forward. The federal welfare reform act of 1996 assures that. We still believe many people will find better lives because they've faced the necessity of gaining greater self-sufficiency. But their ride from welfare to work requires extraordinary commitment, patience, and flexibility on the part of case workers, county welfare officials, and state political leaders.

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