Congress advances 'workfare' reforms Law would make people work for benefits.

July 31, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Resurrecting a popular social program from the Great Depression, Congress is advancing a $400 million pilot project that would require welfare recipients and the unemployed to work in government jobs rebuilding their communities.

The welfare reform legislation is a modern-day spinoff of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous Works Progress Administration.

The WPA paid more than 3 million of the nation's unemployed to construct roads, bridges, airfields and schools between 1935 and 1943.

The current proposal, part of a $21.4 billion tax bill approved yesterday by the Senate Finance Committee, would pay eligible welfare recipients in three selected cities and two states a 10 percent bonus on top of government assistance.

In return, they would work in teams providing such services as rebuilding public parks, digging sewer trenches, painting murals and delivering hot meals.

"This is very ambitious," said Sen. David L. Boren, D-Okla., the architect of the legislation. "I just don't think we have time to waste. One thing we are certain about is the current system is just not working."

No cities or states are identified in the legislation, but Mr. Boren said it is a "virtual certainty Los Angeles would be at the very top of the list."

Although the concept of putting welfare recipients to work is embraced by many experts in the social services field, some critics said Boren's initiative is destined to fail.

"You can never get them off welfare with minimum wages," said Alice Harris, executive director of the nonprofit organization Parents of Watts in Los Angeles. "I was hoping they could give them a job, a trade where they could give them at least $10 to $12 an hour and 40 hours a week. But to give them a rake and 10 percent to shut their mouth up, I don't think that will work. You have to give them pride."

When the reform plan was introduced in March, Mr. Boren believed that would take up to three years to get the pilot project enacted by Congress, he said. But, in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, the measure picked up momentum and sponsors within the Senate.

"Absolutely, the riot helped," Mr. Boren said. "It symbolized the urgent need to do something and gave us a window of opportunity."

Mr. Boren's legislation, called the Community Works Progress Demonstration Program, would award $100 million a year in grants between 1994 and 1997.

Individuals receiving Aid to Families With Dependent Children benefits and unemployment compensation are eligible for the program and must work, provided that enough jobs are available. Mothers with small children would not be required to work. Participants would be eligible for assistance to pay for child care, transportation and uniforms. Participants who refuse an available job would lose their benefits.

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