Going nowhere fast 'Welfare reform' is a hollow mantra without a jobs program

April 21, 1996|By SARA ENGRAM

THE FAILURE of three decades of social spending to solve the problems of poverty in America has spawned a backlash. At some point, even the most patient citizen will rise up and demand a dollar's worth of results for a dollar's worth of taxes.

Nowhere is that backlash more evident than in the battle cry of ''welfare reform.'' From Capitol Hill and the White House to Annapolis and state capitals across the country, politicians are promising, as President Clinton did, to ''end welfare as we know it.''

And who could object? By welfare they mean Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a system intended to provide minimal support for destitute women and children. Unfortunately, the system designed to implement that good intention had serious drawbacks that have compounded over the years.

Perverse incentives

It has marginalized men, alienating fathers from their families. It has encouraged women to become dependent on a government check, rather than on a husband or a job. It has enabled teen-age girls to set up their own single-parent households simply by having a baby and becoming eligible for welfare.

In short, it has encouraged and sustained trends that have taken an enormous toll on our society.

But if welfare as we know it has failed us, what promise can we find in the reforms proposed or already adopted?

Will they address the core of the problem -- the inability of poor people to achieve a measure of self-sufficiency?

Unfortunately, most ''reform'' doesn't change the system but only tinkers around the edges. To achieve real welfare reform, we would have to clarify the problem and attack its roots.

Do we want to end dependency? Do we want to discourage births to unwed mothers, especially teen-age unwed mothers? Do we simply want to put welfare recipients to work, even if it's only in community-service jobs?

All those are admirable objectives, and we hear some variation of them in every welfare-reform debate. But the fact is, they skirt the realities of welfare today.

Welfare has undoubtedly encouraged dependency in many people, especially second-, third- or fourth-generation recipients. Ending the entitlement to welfare payments would be a jolt to these people, but will it spur them to self-sufficiency?

Most want to work

There are many causes of dependency, but perhaps the most basic is the lack of jobs that pay enough for families to support themselves. There are many people on welfare who are unqualified for most jobs, but talk to the very poor and you will meet few who say they do not want to work.

Work organizes life, as President Clinton has said. It gives people a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to stay sober and, most important, some reason to hope for a better future.

People who work -- or who have realistic hopes of a job -- also have more reason to instill hope in their children and to care for their children so that they can take advantage of future opportunities. Work gives us dignity.

But when we congratulate ourselves on ''reforming welfare'' or on attempting to move people from welfare to work, do we seriously believe we will find a job with a living wage for an uneducated mother of three who never knew her father, whose childhood was scarred by sexual abuse by her mother's boyfriends, and who, unsurprisingly, grapples with drug addiction, depression and suicidal tendencies?

Would you employ her? Wouldn't a more useful goal be to ensure that she takes better care of her children than her mother did?

Especially in benighted inner cities, the welfare rolls are full of tough cases, but I haven't yet heard a reform plan that realistically addresses their situation.

What we can address -- and what the welfare-reform plan adopted by the General Assembly primarily addresses -- is the plight of the working poor and motivated, reasonably functional welfare recipients who simply need a boost to get back on their feet.

The father who will lose his job unless he can repair his car. The mother who spent last month's rent on a medical bill but can avoid eviction with a small grant. The flexibility granted by the state to local social-services departments can make big differences in these kinds of cases.

But that doesn't go to the core of the problem -- the lack of enough jobs for all the people who need them and the resulting poverty that breeds all manner of social pathology.

Maybe I'm missing something, but that part of the equation still seems little more than a wish and a prayer. After all, wouldn't a hard-nosed employment strategy have made the Department of Economic and Employment Development a key partner in this effort?

Charging alone

As it stands, the Department of Human Resources is expected to lead the charge on solving these problems -- and that usually means leading the charge alone.

We can wish this latest effort all the best. In fact, it's better than some. But I suspect I'm not alone in my cynicism.

We won't really reform welfare until we acknowledge that the goal is to provide an alternative to poverty -- a job -- and begin to nudge people toward that goal. Unless we find a way to do that, we may as well resolve ourselves to some version of welfare as we know it, or prepare ourselves for the harsh consequences of a punitive approach.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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