Messing with success

September 18, 2006

Ten years after the nation's welfare laws were overhauled, forcing millions of poor, single mothers off public assistance and into the work force, the social outcomes have been mostly positive. More of these women are working and setting their own paths than ever before.

Some troubling trends now threaten their long-term prospects, however.

Though they earn more than they did on welfare, many remain poor, according to a recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Child poverty has increased in recent years as the number of children who receive public assistance has fallen. And as with other working poor families, affordable child care and lack of health insurance remain persistent challenges for former recipients making too much to qualify for subsidized health insurance and child care but not enough to pay for these benefits on their own.

What's more, new federal rules that go into effect next month will tighten the reins on state welfare authorities at a time when they should be granted continued autonomy and flexibility, which allowed them to tailor welfare-to-work programs for specific recipient populations. Those very programs led to the dramatic 59 percent decline in the number of families on welfare nationwide.

So far, Maryland's welfare roll has averaged around 57,588 this year, compared with a high of 206,528 in 1996. Baltimore's caseload, which was 86,783 in 1996, has dropped to 30,902. Now, with smaller rolls to manage, state governments are better positioned to target hard-core welfare cases, the undereducated and unskilled and even illiterate recipients who have had difficulty getting jobs.

The new regulations will instead require states to focus on getting more recipients into the labor force, regardless of their readiness or qualifications, rather than concentrate on improving their weak work skills and education levels.

This is a particular concern in Baltimore, which has the state's highest number of welfare recipients. The new rules will only exacerbate the problem of a core group of people cycling on and off welfare because they are unable to find or keep jobs.

Congress should fix this shortcoming in the rules so that the success of the past decade can be replicated in the years to come.

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