Since it began, the story of welfare reform in America has been filled with good news. Rolls have dropped by more than half, more recipients than ever are working, and fewer families are on welfare than at any time since "Patton" was best picture.
Now, however, comes the hard part.
This fall, the five-year deadline for many states to move welfare recipients off the dole and into jobs will expire.
Clearly, not everyone will be dropped - some states started late, and the deadline only affects recipients who have already received benefits for five years. But the date is an important signpost. As more people near their cutoff, state lawmakers are increasingly grappling with questions of whom they should continue to support and how they can do so without betraying the get-tough ideals of the original reforms.
Some propose continuing to support as many people as possible through exemptions and state money. Others want to stand firm and simply tweak tough laws, making them a bit more lenient. The decisions are difficult, all agree, but crucial. They will not only test notions of fairness, but also determine the future health of one of the most sweeping government reforms of the past 30 years.
"There's a more clear recognition that there are some families that will need continuing help," says Jack Tweedie of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. "Now it's necessary to take into account those families without diluting the system."
These debates are under way in virtually every state capitol in America - from Connecticut to Texas to Hawaii - and they are being driven by a key federal exemption. It says that, in cases of hardship, people who have passed the cutoff date can continue to receive federal money, so long as those exemptions don't surpass 20 percent of the state caseload.
It also left it to states to decide who should qualify for these exemptions, and that's what they're doing now. "It's tough," says Sheila Zedlewski of the Urban Institute in Washington. "They need a good approach to putting more families into work, but they also need to identify families that have multiple problems."
In Minnesota, with a Republican-controlled House, a Democratic Senate, and a third-party governor, there's plenty of room for disagreement. The North Star State started its welfare reform in 1997, which means the first deadlines won't arrive until next year, but both houses of the Legislature and the governor have already made proposals to resolve the situation.
They range from the Senate's plan to exempt virtually everyone who hits the five-year deadline - which would still be less than 20 percent of the total caseload - to the House's preference to exempt only those deemed unemployable. Chuck Johnson of the state's Department of Human Services calls it "the biggest decision around welfare" since reform began there four years ago.
Indeed, in many states there is a sense that welfare reform is turning a corner, moving past the logistical issues of its infancy to a more-mature consideration of the purposes of welfare.
Many state officials, for example, say the people on the rolls now are far different from the ones that were there five years ago. In many cases, those on welfare today are poorly educated and have little or no job experience - and that has changed states' plans.
"There's a certain amount of reassessment going on," says Dan Bloom of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, a New York-based advocacy group for low-income Americans. "One stage of welfare reform is coming to an end..., and there's an emergence of interest in education and training."
Gov. Jane Swift of Massachusetts, for one, has proposed counting time spent in job training and school classes toward welfare recipients' work requirement. Illinois goes a step further and "stops the federal clock" when recipients go to college, instead paying their benefits with state money. Minnesota is pondering a similar rule.
With such refinements and a prudent exemption policy, many experts say, the passage of time limits doesn't have to mean apocalyptic changes for welfare families.
In fact, several states set stricter deadlines than the federal government, and some recipients there have already passed their time limits. Yet many of these states have found ways to keep benefits coming. New York has an extensive system of vouchers to act as a safety net, and Connecticut allows families to receive six-month extensions.
By some estimates, the time limits this fall might impact only 4 percent of the US caseload. Within two years, though, another 20 percent could reach their limits. What impact that will have, analysts say, will be influenced largely by what happens in legislatures this year.
"If states plan well, it isn't an immediate problem, and it's only a reasonable long-term problem," says Mr. Tweedie. "They must create some protections without opening the floodgates."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor