Finding ways to help the neediest cases

January 19, 2000

This is an excerpt of a Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorial, which was published Jan. 4.

EVER since governors began creating "widows' pensions" in the 19th century, Americans have struggled between two views of public assistance for needy families. One sees welfare as a compassionate, even essential, lifeline to families who fall on hard times. The other says that welfare winds up rewarding the irresponsible and entrapping the indolent.

The latter view gained favor in America during the early 1990s -- in part because the nation's welfare rolls were rising sharply, and in part because Americans had grown skeptical of government antipoverty efforts. That view triumphed with the passage of welfare reform legislation in 1996, which placed time limits on public assistance, forced welfare families to seek work and unleashed states to enact tougher welfare regimes. The law's popularity was no surprise because it promoted the appealing premise that kicking poor families off welfare could actually do them a favor -- and, by the way, save millions of tax dollars.

Three subsequent years have proved the welfare hawks partly correct. Millions of families have moved off of welfare and into the work force, cutting the nation's caseloads by 50 percent, and surveys show that perhaps one-third of them are better off today.

However, a new study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank with a focus on social equity, finds that while millions of families have climbed out of poverty since 1995, those who remain poor have fallen deeper and deeper into penury. For example, the number of poor children receiving food stamps has plunged by 27 percent, even though the number who qualify for them is down by less than 10 percent. In other words, says study coauthor Wendell Primus, "The get-tough approach has not been painless or free."

One might argue that this was a productive shift in social rewards: Poor families now have a greater incentive than ever to find work. But there are two holes in that argument. First, the new strategy is no more effective than the old one at reducing poverty. Mr. Primus found that the ranks of poor children actually fell faster from 1993 to 1995, before the new rules took effect, than they did after 1995.

Second, the incentives still aren't quite right. Millions of families who played by the rules and got jobs were nonetheless cut off from benefits for which they still qualify. "If a mother is working 20 hours a week, we should make it easier for her to get assistance, not harder," Mr. Primus argues.

One lesson is that welfare is not purely noble or evil, and that welfare families are not categorically unworthy. Barbara Blum, a former director of New York State's antipoverty programs, says welfare reform has worked for one tier of the caseload -- those with education and job skills who were ready to succeed in the labor market. But the new regime often fails welfare's second tier -- those with mental illness, extremely low intelligence, drug addiction or other barriers.

For them, the simple get-tough message is ineffective and downright punitive. Ms. Blum says the nation needs two welfare statutes: One would reward work for the capable population; the second would address the tougher cases, such as the parents of gravely disabled children or the mentally ill, who wound up on welfare by default.

Sorting welfare families by need and ability isn't always easy. But lessons from the last three years have made it easier to undertake that task, and more essential to throw out old stereotypes.

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