Pressing ahead on welfare reform First deadlines: Maryland is among states that meet first test.

October 01, 1997

EVEN CRITICS of welfare reform acknowledge that states have gotten at least one important break: A robust economy has helped reduce the number of people on the welfare rolls, making it much easier for states to meet federal targets for moving people from welfare to work.

The number of welfare recipients across the country has fallen from 5.1 million families in 1994 to 3.9 million as of last May. In Maryland, year-old welfare reform initiatives have helped put the state among only 17 that are certain to meet today's federal target for showing that 75 percent of their two-parent families receiving welfare benefits are employed or are participating in job-training programs.

This is the first of many welfare reform deadlines. Theoretically, states can be fined for failing to comply on time, but so far the Department of Health and Human Services has not even issued rules explaining how the law is to be interpreted.

Asked the other day about the number of states falling short of this first deadline, President Clinton said only, ''I think most states really are working hard and in good faith to try to do this,'' suggesting he preferred a cautious approach in imposing any sanctions.

It seems certain, though, that states like Maryland that have invested heavily in devising their own welfare reform experiments will be the most successful in complying with future deadlines. It seems equally likely that even the most creative states will face some tough obstacles.

Successful welfare reform depends on many factors, with a good economy being one of the most important. But the quality of reform programs -- and the effort that goes into evaluating those efforts -- will also make a big difference.

A partnership between the state's Department of Human Resources and the University of Maryland, Baltimore's School of Social Work is providing researchers to study the effects of welfare reform. An initial study released yesterday found that, so far, reform efforts have helped move people from welfare to work without harming children and families.

More such studies will be carefully scrutinized. Long-term client tracking could give us the best clues as to what's working and why.

Pub Date: 10/01/97

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