Reality check

March 11, 2003

AS THE NATION'S unemployment rate has risen, welfare caseloads in many states have been creeping up after years of reform-fueled declines. Welfare-to-work worked, of course, when the economy was booming; but now, industries that provide many opportunities for the working poor are struggling. In February alone, the U.S. economy shed 300,000 jobs -- more than 200,000 of them in service industries, according to labor figures released Friday.

States' efforts to reduce their poorest citizens' dependence on handouts will suffer if the bust continues, welfare experts worry; as always, the last hired are among the first fired or laid off.

So tomorrow, when the Senate Finance Committee takes up welfare reform, uppermost in members' minds should be recession-proof alternatives that build on the success of the current program. The landmark 1996 welfare reform law cut America's welfare rolls by an estimated 59 percent, moving the poor into jobs while offering a helping hand through other social services.

The law expired last fall, but funding has been extended through June. Congress, meanwhile, is having trouble leaving well enough alone. In February, the House approved a version calling for welfare recipients to work, or work and go to school, up to 40 hours a week. Current recipients must work 20 to 30 hours a week, depending on the age of their children.

If a little is good, a lot is better? Many states disagree, saying they would have to substantially change the services they provide to meet this demand. The Republican-led effort to improve welfare-to-work by prescribing even more work during an economic slump seems ham-handed, not compassionate, or even very practical.

The House version also calls on states to put to work 70 percent of people receiving temporary assistance payments, up from 50 percent. But that's just upping the ante without looking at the faces behind the numbers. For example, in Maryland, many of the people who still rely on public assistance are single moms with very young children, and grandmothers who have had to take in their children's children: not likely candidates for full-time work.

Especially at this time of budget shortfalls, states say that to provide a mix of programs that works they need greater flexibility rather than a mandate.

In addition, greater investment must be made in child care so poor parents can go to work, states say. The House approved adding $2 billion to the child care budget over five years; Democratic lawmakers say the need is more than five times that.

The House missed the point. The Senate committee will be off to a good start if it recognizes that America's great welfare experiment rode the economy to victory. Congress' duty now is to ensure five more years of success -- and for the uncertain future, that means making sure the program is as recession-proof as possible.

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