Study says welfare reforms haven't produced results

FAILING SYSTEM:

March 30, 1992|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- When Congress passed a much-celebrated welfare law in 1988, its supporters said it would bring revolutionary changes to the system.

But the first major study of its implementation says the program's accomplishments fall far short of radical change. While the law has succeeded in expanding services, the report found, it is failing to convert welfare from a system that permits long-term dependency to one that stresses skills, jobs and financial independence.

The report, to be released today at a Senate hearing, attributes the problems to a lack of political commitment and a recession-driven shortage of money.

"The potential of the program hasn't been fully realized," said Irene Lurie, a professor of public affairs at the State University of New York in Albany, who co-wrote the report.

"There have been significant changes, but there hasn't been what was advertised in Washington: the most sweeping reform in 50 years."

The findings come as welfare caseloads have reached record highs and elected officials from President Bush on down are making sharp attacks on the system and the 13 million people who rely on it.

The program is called JOBS -- for Job Opportunities and Basic Skills -- and it was created as part of the 1988 Family Support Act. It requires every state to run an education, training or work program for parents on welfare, and provides up to $1 billion a year in federal matching money to help pay for it.

When it passed, Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, D-N.Y., and other supporters said the law amounted to a new social contract, one that emphasized the mutual obligations of government and poor people.

The law expands training opportunities for those on welfare but also imposes new obligations on them to participate. States are supposed to meet enrollment quotas and reduce the grants of those who refuse to join.

The report, which examined 10 states, including Maryland, was not entirely negative. It found that states were meeting their enrollment goals and that government agencies that provide related services were learning to work together, a social policy goal often pursued but difficult to achieve.

As a result, it said, the program was offering "enhanced educational and training opportunities to welfare recipients."

Its biggest criticisms centered not on the letter of the law but on the states' approach toward its spirit. The program's architects hoped it "would signal a change in the mission of welfare systems or redefine the social contract," the report said, but that "has not been realized."

Richard Nathan, director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at SUNY, which conducted the study, said the lack of fanfare had implications for the public: Amid all the current talk about changing welfare, he said, many are unaware that large-scale changes are already supposed to be under way.

Mr. Nathan had hoped the program would serve to spur social workers to think more creatively about the range of a family's needs, and design services for children as well as their mothers.

But the report found that states had not used the new money "in any significant manner to provide new or expanded services to the children."

The report found that states, unable to come up with their portion of the matching funds, are spending only about 48 percent of the $1 billion in available federal money. Figures from the Department of Health and Human Services, which is among the groups paying for the study, have since updated that number to about 60 percent.

Mr. Moynihan said he was most disturbed by the finding that states, in meeting their enrollment goals, were giving priorities to mothers who volunteer. He said this practice could undermine the notion that the reluctant had an obligation to participate.

"Most welfare administrators don't believe in telling people they have to do something or else," he said.

By 1995, every state will be required to enroll 20 percent of their welfare recipients in a work or training program, but about half the mothers are exempt because their children are too young.

In addition to Maryland, the report examined Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas. It was co-written by Jan L. Hagen, also a professor at SUNY.

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