A New Framework for Social Welfare

March 22, 1994|By KALMAN R. HETTLEMAN

President Clinton has an unlikely choir of new Democrats and old Republicans singing from the same welfare-reform hymnal. The refrain is to ''end welfare as we know it'' by requiring recipients to work after a limited time on the welfare rolls. Many governors, including Governor Schaefer, have joined in the chorus. The Maryland General Assembly considering a bill to mandate work after 18 months.

This movement has been heralded as a fresh, tough approach to the catastrophic social problem of welfare dependency. When Bill Clinton campaigned to bring ''change'' to America, replacing welfare with work was a prime example. But how much change is there in time-limited benefits followed by a work requirement? And how much chance is there that they will succeed?

Regretably, the answer to both questions is: little to none.

Work requirements have been a part of the welfare law since 1967. Then House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills declared, ''We want to see to it that those who are drawing welfare checks . . . take training and then work.'' Congress passed the Work Incentive Program which generally forced recipients to undertake work or training or face sanctions.

The 1967 reforms didn't work. Nor have wave after wave of other welfare-to-work initiatives, among them modifications to the Work Incentive Program, ''workfare'' and most recently the Family Support Act of 1988. There is no reason to suppose that Mr. Clinton's work requirements will be any more successful. First, there aren't enough jobs to go around. Even welfare recipients who complete training must compete against other more highly skilled job seekers.

As a fallback, the president and governors have proposed ''community service.'' This could mean ''public service employment'' in which recipients go off the rolls into full-time government-funded jobs. Or ''workfare,'' in which recipients retain their benefits but ''work them off'' in part-time jobs in government or non-profit agencies.

Neither, despite numerous trials, has had much impact or commanded wide support. On the surface, public-service jobs cost no more than the cost of welfare benefits, including food stamps. But there are large hidden costs, among them child care and administration, estimated at about $5,000 per job. Organized labor is hostile to workfare, fearing that recipients will displace regular public employees and depress wages. Business fears that large-scale public employment will drive up the price of labor in the private market.

Even if more private- or public-sector jobs were available, many long-term recipients would be unlikely to stick with them if welfare benefits remained an alternative. The jobs wouldn't pay enough. Welfare is worth at least as much to the average family as a minimum-wage job.

Researchers Catherine E. Born and James Kunz, at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, found that first-time recipients ''unanimously agree that work is preferable to welfare.'' But, like the rest of us, they make calculated economic decisions. When welfare is an alternative, they don't stay attached to low-paying jobs that offer no health insurance or child care, few promotional opportunities and little job security.

Work requirements might work only if sanctions for non-compliance were strictly enforced. Yet stiff sanctions are resisted because children would suffer. Also, non-compliance is hard to document. Recipients don't defiantly refuse to work. They tend to work irregularly, depending upon a myriad of at-home and on-the-job circumstances.

If work requirements won't work, what will? Liberals urge more education and job training. Conservatives, orchestrated by Charles Murray, argue that the only way to end welfare as we know it is to abolish it.

dTC A third path is illuminated by the social-policy writer Mickey Kaus in his book ''The End of Equality.'' He too would abolish welfare but he would replace it with guaranteed public jobs and health and child care. Tax credits would bring the wages of the average family to or near the poverty level. A guaranteed job would be available for ''every American citizen over 18 who wants it'' -- male or female, welfare-eligible or not.

This is real change: a new framework for social welfare that achieves the fundamental goals of conservatives and liberals. For conservatives, the government would no longer subsidize teens and others who have out-of-wedlock children without any means to support them. No longer will those on welfare be favored with income, jobs and services not available to the working poor. At the same time, liberals get what they have long cherished: guaranteed economic security, especially jobs and health care, for all Americans.

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