Reformed welfare makes big gains, faces bigger challenges A big reason for welfare rolls declining is that states are making it extraordinarily tough to get on the dole in the first place.

August 24, 1998|By Neal R. Peirce

In four years, America's welfare rolls have tumbled a phenomenal 37 percent, from 14.4 million to 9 million recipients. In the history of national relief, there's never been a drop like this.

And the credit can't just go to a booming national economy. As House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer, a Texas Republican, correctly notes, welfare rolls actually grew during the '80s as the nation added 20 million jobs, compared with 12 million in this decade.

Just since 1995 in New York City, note Jan Rosenberg and Fred Siegel in a special study for the New York Daily News, the welfare caseload has plunged from a record 1.1 million to 763,000 -- "despite sluggish local job growth, a notoriously resistant welfare bureaucracy, and a highly organized lobby of welfare advocates."

The New York City count, report Rosenberg and Siegel, is now the lowest since 1968, achieved without a widely visible increase in homelessness or suffering.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is even pledging New York will "end welfare by the end of this century completely. . . . We will replace dependency with work . . . everybody in this city will work."

That won't happen, of course, unless destitute children and severely disabled people are shifted to a program with some other name. But the mere thought of welfare fading away in New York, the historic epicenter of American liberalism, is breathtaking.

Clearly, we're forging a new American social contract -- conceived in the early '90s welfare reform of such states as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio, ratified and expanded in Congress' 1996 "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act," and now permeating every state.

Yet this is not simply a coldhearted throwing of the needy to the wolves. The National Governors' Association reports that while the states' expenditures for cash assistance declined 26 percent between 1996 and 1998, their outlays on training and follow-up support increased by 34 percent, and for child care -- often critical in enabling the poor to find and keep jobs -- by 55 percent.

A big reason for welfare rolls declining is that states are making it extraordinarily tough to get on the dole in the first place.

Four years ago, 80 percent of people applying for welfare in New York were approved; today less than 25 percent are. Applicants are told repeatedly that benefits run out in five years, and that to get any checks they'll have to take jobs working for the city.

To get on welfare in Missouri, an applicant has to contact 10 employers each week for four weeks. In Florida, it's proof of spending two weeks contacting more than a dozen employers, according to a Washington Post survey.

Arguably, that's just the toughness the public wants. But American society has begun to take the other side of the new social contract seriously, too.

On the business front, thousands of former welfare recipients now work for such companies as United Airlines, Marriott, McDonald's or Sears, often with personal counseling and special programs to assist them with transportation and child care. United reported it retained 70 percent of the 760 welfare recipients it hired in 1997, compared with 40 percent of other low-income people hired.

"Tough love" programs like STRIVE -- Support and Training Result in Valuable Employees -- are helping many welfare-dependent people change their habits and become employable. Efforts to train welfare recipients to open their own day-care centers -- often to serve the children of other women coming off welfare -- are reported in 29 states and growing.

None of this heartening news should delude us, though: There are still tough times ahead. The "welfare news" may not again ring as positive as it does today.

Why? The first millions leaving welfare have been the most motivated and capable; among those remaining are many people of fewer skills, more socially isolated. Many have intractable drug or health problems. Rosenberg and Siegel speculate that daunting new solutions -- group homes for the most dysfunctional, for example -- may be needed.

An ominous racial divide may be opening: In 1997, 25 percent of white families on welfare left the rolls, compared with only 17 percent of black and 9 percent of Hispanic families.

It appears many people leaving welfare don't really find work; many simply depend on already poor relatives. Even when they get jobs, many can't lift their families out of poverty -- especially if their jobs are in day care, with its notoriously low wages.

When the economic cycle turns downward it will be much tougher to find entry-level jobs. And Congress and state legislatures may be tempted to cut appropriations for critical job training and job placement programs.

We've made astounding progress in breaking the old welfare system. But the test of our mettle, our determination to end deep poverty and the dependence of welfare, has just begun.

Neil Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/24/98

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