Welfare rolls reduced sharply

Clinton hails reforms

skeptics question fate of former recipients

Md. Caseloads cut in half

August 04, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Buoyed by new statistics that show plunging welfare rolls and soaring employment levels, President Clinton hailed the success of the 1996 welfare reform law yesterday, even as he exhorted business and congressional leaders to help those left behind.

The federal government's first state-by-state study of welfare reform indicated that caseloads have fallen 40 percent nationally since the law was enacted in 1996, from 12.2 million to 7.3 million, the lowest level since 1967. Since January 1993, when Clinton took office, welfare rolls have been cut nearly by half, from 14.1 million.

In Maryland, the figures are more dramatic: a 60 percent decline in welfare recipients since January 1993 and a 54 percent drop since the federal law took effect. By March, Maryland's caseload had reached 89,003, down from 194,127 in August 1996 and 221,338 in January 1993, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"The drop in caseloads is absolutely astounding, certainly beyond anything any professional in this field would have predicted," said Lynda G. Fox, secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

The combination of a robust national economy, the law's strict new rules, and rising wages is widely credited with reducing the welfare rolls. But critics question whether most of those former welfare recipients have really found work and improved their lot or are languishing with no job or public assistance.

Mindful of those concerns, Clinton traveled yesterday to a welfare-to-work forum in Chicago to pressure Congress to approve new child care programs, housing and transportation vouchers and job-training efforts. He also exhorted businesses in the national Welfare-to-Work Partnership, which have hired 410,000 people from the welfare rolls, to do more.

His concerns appear to be borne out by statistics. Of the 2.1 million adults who said they left welfare for at least a month between 1995 and 1997, nearly one-third had returned to the welfare rolls by the end of 1997, a new study by the Urban Institute found. Sixty-one percent of former welfare recipients retained their new jobs. A larger proportion -- 75 percent -- either had jobs or lived in households with someone who did.

Still, for some, those statistics are cause for worry.

"Certainly, if 25 percent of these people have no visible source of income, that's a big concern," said Pamela Loprest, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute who wrote the welfare study.

The former recipients who got and kept jobs are largely stuck in the low-paid service sector, with no health insurance, often working odd hours and struggling to make ends meet. The median hourly wage of former welfare recipients is $6.61, Loprest found. The combined annual income of former welfare recipients and their spouses or partners is $13,788, roughly the poverty level for a family of three.

"Where is the president acknowledging that? He's not," said Peter Edelman, a Georgetown University law professor and longtime friend of the Clintons who quit a high-level post in the Department of Health and Human Services in protest of the welfare law.

Indeed, the success of welfare reform is in the eyes of the beholder. In Maryland, only half of former recipients remain employed three months after they leave welfare, according to Catherine Born, a professor at the University of Maryland's School of Social Work who is tracking former welfare recipients.

Yet that figure is deceptive. Born cautioned that it does not count former recipients who live in Maryland but who work in Virginia, Delaware or the District of Columbia, who work for the federal government, or who work in informal jobs such as domestic work or in-home child care.

"I think it's working extraordinarily well," Fox insisted.

The most dire prediction about welfare reform -- that children would be abandoned -- has not come true, Born said. Of the 3,400 Maryland children Born is tracking, only 15 have entered foster care since their families left welfare. Many of them would have gone to foster care anyway, she said.

"Most people are leaving welfare and getting jobs," Born said, "and most of the people who get jobs have been able to maintain their employment over time."

That is not attributable simply to the booming economy. In a report also issued yesterday, the president's Council of Economic Advisers concluded that the economy accounted for no more than 10 percent of the decline in welfare rolls since the law was enacted. One-third of the decline was attributable to changes that transformed a program designed to dole out money into one intended to move people into the work force through education, training, job placement and time limits on assistance.

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