The Illusory Promise of Welfare Reform

NEAL R. PEIRCE

April 07, 1992|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Ronald Reagan is gone, but the bashing of welfare queens -- and kings -- goes on.

''General relief,'' Massachusetts state Sen. Michael Creedon was quoted as saying last fall, ''goes to people who are urinating on the floor at the bus station in Brockton and throwing up. They take that $338 and go to the nearest bar and spend it.''

Through state and local elections this fall, and probably the presidential race, we're likely to hear a lot of the same. President Bush in his State of the Union address took aim at intergenerational welfare. Vice President Quayle recently pilloried New York as a welfare magnet. Democratic presidential contender Bill Clinton makes a point of insisting that ''those on welfare move into the workplace.''

And at the same time, welfare has come under the legislative gun in states coast to coast. General assistance for able-bodied adults has been decimated, or eliminated entirely, in 13 states.

Reform of AFDC welfare has leaped forward with a New Jersey statute that denies added welfare benefits to women who have additional children. Maryland plans to cut back welfare for recipients who don't pay their rent, keep their kids in school or get preventive medical care.

And in California, Gov. Pete Wilson is thrusting welfare onto political center stage with a so-called ''Taxpayers Protection Act'' for the November ballot. It could cut welfare benefits as much as 25 percent to avert what Governor Wilson calls a ''coming fiscal train wreck.''

But don't expect massive fiscal savings -- or some dramatic change in America's social order -- from all the talk and state action. Welfare-reform plans have been the rage for several years, but who believes the problem has been resolved anywhere?

The political rhetoric suggests welfare is fleecing the middle class, but the fact is welfare costs remain below 4 percent of overall state budgets -- even after rolls swelled 20 percent in the recession.

And getting savings by reform is illusory. Indeed, the ''carrots'' to get people off welfare -- child care, ongoing medical coverage, lTC job training -- involve tangible costs.

Take the New Jersey effort. The state's cut-off of AFDC for extra kids is part of a six-part Family Development Act, sponsored by Assemblyman Wayne Bryant, a black Democrat from Camden. It requires that all recipients with children over two years of age take part in education or job training as a condition of getting aid. It offers remedial education, vouchers for transportation and day care. And women are no longer automatically thrown off welfare when they marry.

Maybe the plan, as Gov. James Florio proclaims, will start liberating recipients ''from the prison, the dependency mentality'' of today's welfare. But if you're looking for dollar savings, don't hold your breath.

California's welfare migraine is especially severe. With a basic AFDC grant level of $663 a month -- fifth highest in the nation -- the state has seen its benefit rolls swell from 1.5 million to 2.2 million since 1989. With 12 percent of the country's population, California has 26 percent of the nation's AFDC costs.

So Governor Wilson would cut benefits 10 percent right away, then pare it back more and more for anyone who fails to get off the welfare rolls. Claiming California is now a ''welfare magnet,'' he'd limit first-year welfare payments to the level of the state a migrant comes from.

The cuts may help, but Mr. Wilson promises to use any savings (he predicts $600 million a year) for education. And he'd like to institute all manner of preventive social programs for children and families. Even if the Taxpayers Protection Act is approved in November, a fiscal wash may be the best California can hope for.

What about the ''clean break'' of slicing adults off general assistance -- the ''solution'' in such states as Illinois, Michigan, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Ohio? A state budget looks instantly better. But you have to ask where the recipients will next be seen. In jobs (at last)? Or in homeless shelters? Or in police lineups? Or prison? Does Michigan, for example, do better with $6-a-day general assistance or the state pen at $60 a day?

Welfare is a ''hot button'' issue. Especially on the right, politicians see pay dirt in it. But the grim reality is that, far from yielding to reform and quick fixes, welfare may be around to pollute our politics, and bedevil government budget making, far into the next century.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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