Stunting progress

July 24, 2006

During a decade of welfare reform, many states have shown tremendous progress - not only in reduced numbers on the welfare rolls but also in better prospects for families and children once a parent has gained steady and meaningful employment. But recent proposed federal regulations meant to help implement the next phase of reform seem to turn progress on its head.

The new rules, which go into effect Oct. 1, represent changes to the welfare reform program that were passed as part of the Deficit Reduction Act this year. A state must ensure that 50 percent of its adult welfare recipients are employed or involved in a training program or it faces financial penalties. Failure to comply could reduce a state's federal welfare grant by 5 percent in the first year and up to 21 percent in subsequent years. In addition, the rules specify permissible work activities, requiring states to monitor and document how many hours recipients work.

The approach seems unnecessarily prescriptive. Some welfare reform analysts have concluded that the most effective welfare-to-work programs are not narrowly focused on work for the sake of working. They concentrate on improving recipients' skills, education and training to put them in jobs that offer a chance for sustained success - and that might include transitional work experience before a recipient is placed in a salaried job. Much of the progress in reducing welfare caseloads has been because of successful state efforts to get the most work-ready recipients into jobs. But many recipients who remain on the rolls are harder to employ, often because of mental health and substance abuse problems and similar issues.

In Maryland, only about 20 percent of nearly 52,400 recipients are preparing for permanent full-time jobs. To boost the state's participation rate and avoid penalties, state welfare officials will have to spend a lot more time and money on details - monitoring the hours a recipient spends in a program and making sure that it qualifies as recognized work activity - while also trying to provide additional child care and come up with creative ways to address the needs of recipients who face significant barriers to employment.

In the next month or so before the new regulations become final, federal officials ought to reconsider the wisdom of forcing states to conform to such rigid rules.

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