The economy could hardly be more friendly to welfare reform. Unemployment just above 4 percent, companies hungry for workers, opportunities sprouting. What better time to absorb thousands of people trying to make the transition from welfare to work?
That question, of course, hides a multitude of complicating factors. Basically, the welfare population, like the rest of America, shares a desire for better lives and the dignity of self-sufficiency. In all too many cases, however, that population doesn't share crucial preparation: a decent education, some prior work experience, and such basic assets as a means of transportation and options for child care.
Even so, the welfare rolls have plummeted since the passage of a tough-minded, and controversial, reform law in 1996 - a law designed to end welfare as a federal entitlement. That law requires that most adults on welfare find work within two years of receiving aid, or face a cutoff. For many who were on welfare when the law was passed, that deadline arrives this fall. This year, too, the federal government will start awarding "performance" grants to states that have done particularly well in moving people from welfare to work.
Thus a great accounting is nearly upon us. Is welfare reform going to pass the test?
The loudest "yes" comes from those who concentrate on welfare roll statistics. The number of people drawing aid has fallen sharply, to its lowest point since 1970. Early this year it dipped below 10 million. Clinton administration economists have attributed 40 percent of the drop in recent years to the vigorous economy, which has absorbed many former welfare recipients. Much of the rest can be tied to various aspects of welfare reform.
Not least, strict enforcement of rules mandating work, or preparation for work, has pushed added thousands off the rolls. The states' procedures vary widely in this regard. Some dock welfare recipients a portion of their monthly assistance payment for offenses such as failing to show up for an interview, or being late for a "workfare" job. A few states cut off all payment immediately. These sanctions account for more than 30 percent of the exits from welfare since enactment of the '96 law.
And what about the most important figure, the number of people who've landed permanent jobs in the private sector? There, the data are sparse. Most states, after decades of monitoring eligibility and fluctuations in their welfare rolls, have simply not geared up to follow people after they leave the system. Those in Washington serious about welfare reform would like to know, of course. The '96 law demanded a whole new galaxy of statistics to track welfare developments: who's getting child care, job training, housing subsidies, and medical aid, for instance. Most states are having trouble compiling these stats too.
This suggests a potentially serious deficiency in the whole welfare reform endeavor. If no one's really trying to keep track of what's happening to people as incentives to move people off the rolls grow, this experiment could degenerate into a means of simply pushing the least advantaged Americans out of sight and mind.
We've argued right along that welfare reform should move forward - that breaking the cycle of dependency fostered by welfare should be a national priority. But we've also argued that reform must include a clear recognition of needs shared by many of the hardest-to-place welfare recipients: reliable child care, long-term training and job preparation, help with transportation problems, treatment for drug addiction.
The point never has been simply to shrink the rolls, but to rebuild lives.