Nice work if you can get it

February 11, 2003

ECONOMIC STIMULUS for the poor is called welfare reform: Toil longer hours for low pay with little job security or chance of advancement. Put in 40 hours a week instead of 30 at a job or combination of approved work, training and social support programs. But don't count on federal aid to cover child care for parents trying to maintain that schedule.

That's in the bill resurrected from last year by House Republicans to extend the landmark 1996 welfare-to-work law for five years; approval is expected this week.

It also tells states to put more of the poor to work without providing enough resources to sustain the evolving welfare programs supporting them. This is a helping of warmed-over gruel, only worse, because of the economy's hiring slump, its worst in 20 years. It's up to the Senate now to produce a more realistic alternative.

Since 1996, states' welfare reform programs have moved millions of Americans from dependency on cash handouts to honest days' work. Since 1996, these programs have cut the nation's cash welfare rolls by an estimated 59 percent, from 12.2 million recipients down to about 5 million.

The system works best, however, when jobs are plentiful. But since the start of the recession in March 2001, as The New York Times reported last week, 2 million jobs have been lost and there is no end to the downsizing in sight.

Even in flush times, welfare reform succeeds at putting people to work but not at lifting them from poverty: Their new wages at mostly entry-level jobs rarely cover their basic living expenses.

While traditional cash welfare caseloads plummeted, states shifted funds to programs designed to prevent new workers from falling off the ladder as fast as they could get a foothold: combining skills training, substance abuse treatment and child care, for example. Though some will argue that federal funding should decrease with the caseloads, they'll be wrong: The need has changed, not disappeared.

A significant number of welfare recipients remain unable to work, due to unaddressed problems with language, mental illness, child care, drug abuse and more. An estimated one-third of those leaving welfare do not find regular employment. Add to this challenge for states the rising tide of out-of-work citizens seeking help, and budget shortfalls that limit their ability to meet the need.

A nation generous enough to cut taxes for the well-to-do should also be rich enough to help the new working poor who scramble to make ends meet. The revived House proposal, backed by President Bush, fails to advance the welfare-to-work movement to the next level - where the hardest to employ get the help they need to qualify for jobs and the working poor climb out of minimum wage and into self-sufficiency.

Congress must ensure that the states have the resources and flexibility necessary to tailor programs that sustain the neediest Americans through the bad times as well as the boom times.

Anything less risks turning welfare-to-work's success story into failure.

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