For those of you who haven't noticed, welfare reform is back on the national agenda.
Both President Bush and Democratic front-runner Bill Clinton have been talking about welfare. The Senate last month voted to require states to have "workfare" programs for able-bodied recipients of state general assistance programs. (The amendment, to the tax bill, was dropped even before President Bush vetoed the measure.) And states across the country -- Maryland included -- are proposing fundamental changes to their welfare programs in an effort to alter the behavior of poor people.
None of this is much of a surprise. After all, welfare dependency remains a serious problem, and it tends to get more attention when the economy goes south and budgets get tight.
"Whenever times are bad, welfare comes under attack," said Harvard welfare analyst David Ellwood, whose work has been influential with Democrats. Many of the current proposals, he said, "are a combination of legitimate long-term concerns with welfare and crass, short-term politics of recession."
What is puzzling about the re-emergence of welfare as an issue is that lawmakers thought they laid the matter to rest, at least for a decade or so, with the 1988 passage of the Family Support Act.
When President Reagan signed the measure into law, Republicans and Democrats agreed it represented the most sweeping revision of the nation's welfare programs in half a century.
At the center of the law was a significant, if tenuous, consensus between liberals and conservatives who had been arguing for a generation about the causes of welfare dependency and the best means to eradicate it.
Here's where they ended up: Liberals conceded that single mothers with children should be expected -- even required -- to go to work, while conservatives agreed that government should help provide education and training programs, as well as transitional child care and medical benefits, for welfare recipients who manage to leave the public rolls for jobs.
The embodiment of the consensus was the JOBS program (short for Job Opportunities and Basic Skills). Replacing the largely ineffective WIN program, JOBS would provide states with roughly $1 billion annually to help provide welfare recipients with broad array of education, training, job-search and work services.
The idea was to turn the nation's primary welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), from an income-support program with a minor work component into a work program with a minor income-support element.
In many ways, the 1988 law is working better than its backers dare hope. For example, despite the twin recession-related pressures on state budgets -- welfare caseloads ballooning at the same time tax revenues are declining -- all 50 states managed to get their JOBS programs up and running, as the law required, by October 1990.
An estimated 530,000 welfare recipients are participating in welfare-to-work programs each month, according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services. That's more than twice the proportion -- 11 percent of the caseload -- the law requires states to enroll in JOBS programs.
The Family Support Act is also helping spur efforts to make absent fathers pay child support. (The lack of such payments is a key reason many families end up on welfare.) Since 1988, total child support payments rose by $2.5 billion, paternity was established in 56 percent more cases and 86 percent more absent parents were located.
Why, then, are so many policy-makers acting as if nothing had happened? It's not likely they don't know about the law. President Bush has spoken about it favorably in the past, and, as a leader of the National Governors' Association, Mr. Clinton help draft key portions.
Possible reasons include:
* For all its sweeping changes, not to mention the political hype when it was passed, those responsible for the Family Support Act never suggested it would cure all of welfare's ills. Indeed, JOBS was based on state experiments that showed that intensive welfare-to-work programs produced demonstrable, but not necessarily dramatic, promise for moving welfare recipients to self-sufficiency.
"No one ever thought it would produce more than modest change," said Douglas Besharov, a welfare expert with Washington's American Enterprise Institute and a leading conservative voice on the issue.
Indeed, from the start, backers of the program tried to be careful not to overpromise. What they fear most, said former Florida welfare chief Gregory Coler, is that lawmakers would take a cursory look and say, "Well, we still have welfare, so it must have failed."