Welfare to work

March 29, 2004

ONE WAY to measure the success of welfare reform is by caseload counts: Since 1996, America has cut its caseload by more than half.

Another indicator is the resilience of welfare reform's working mothers, who have retained their jobs throughout the recent economic downturn. Their progress is the reward of their hard work and embrace of the American dream. And contrary to dire predictions, as a recent New York Times analysis of federal statistics also notes, these last-hired low-wage earners were not the first fired in this recession - they don't hold the technology and other skilled service jobs that have been shed.

Still, lawmakers should hesitate before cheering low welfare caseload numbers, which should not be taken as indicators of reduced need or dependency. Anyone claiming welfare reform has been recession-proof misses this point: It has barely dented poverty since the 1996 legislation first required aid recipients to work. Its mandate to guide the neediest Americans to self-sufficiency helps some, but remains unfulfilled.

Roughly 4.9 million individuals are on welfare - down 60 percent since 1996. But the number of people living in poverty is rising. The number of households using food stamps is up 35 percent. Unemployment is up, and jobs aren't being created fast enough to put the downsized and laid-off back to work.

States, including Maryland, have found that as traditional cash-payment caseloads decreased, their burdens shifted. New needs have emerged as the recent economic slump nudged the middle class into temporary straits.

Some states' welfare-to-work programs limit, discourage or foreclose participation in ways that push caseload numbers down while further entrenching a segment of the persistently poor. Analysts say too little study has been given to the long-term social costs of this side effect of the must-work mandate.

Welfare reform's goal is not just fewer caseloads, it is bettered lives. There is nothing wrong, then, with demanding that government-dependent workers put in a longer work week to maintain their eligibility, if those extra hours away from home are made possible by sufficient federal investment in child care. There is nothing wrong with pushing newly working families to strive for the next rung up the ladder, if sufficient vocational training and time to take advantage of it are built into aid programs.

The big picture deserves as much of lawmakers' attention as these long-standing sticking points when the U.S. Senate takes up debate on welfare reform legislation today - this time, it is hoped, to finish the work begun two years ago, not further postpone tough decisions.

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