THE Family Support Act of 1988 was billed as a splendid liberal-conservative grand compromise. Liberals agreed to get tougher with welfare recipients, and to demand that those able to work take jobs. Conservatives agreed to become more generous with money.

The act paid for a year of transitional child care and Medicaid, to make it economic for "welfare mothers" to take relatively low-wage jobs. This carrot-and-stick approach would wean welfare recipients from dependency, and put them on the first rung of the ladder to self-sufficiency.

But in the hands of the Bush administration, a well-intentioned reform has become a classic case of bait-and-switch. Needy people are being bullied off welfare at a time of shrinking employment, declining Medicaid benefits and vanishing child care.

The child care part of the story is particularly grotesque, because an administration supposedly committed to cutting red tape is using bureaucratic tricks to keep people from getting the child care that makes paid work possible.

In the 1988 act, Congress required states to set up welfare-to-work transition programs and explicitly provided that people who went off Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) to take paid jobs were entitled to a year of child-care aid. The administrative details were left to the federal executive branch and the states.

However, according to federal data tabulated by the Center for Law and Social Policy, about one eligible family in 20 is actually getting the child-care assistance. That means many diligent former AFDC mothers are spending a large fraction of their meager wages to pay for day care (or leaving their kids to fend for themselves), while others still on AFDC are dissuaded from taking paid jobs because the day-care aid is so hard to get.

For example, in California during 1990, 25,474 families went off AFDC because the mother took a job. Exactly 875 got child-care assistance.

What is the source of the logjam? The main problem is that the Bush administration's Department of Health and Human Services has written regulations that would make a Soviet apparatchik blush.

In principle, transitional child care is available to virtually any person who quits welfare to take a job. But in practice, the welfare mother has to jump through exactly the right bureaucratic hoops. A cynic might think the administration was trying to minimize the cost of the benefits by embracing the stick and discarding the carrot.

For instance, if a welfare mother signs up for the official state job-training program mandated by the 1988 act, she can get the child-care benefits. But if she shows more initiative and lands a job on her own, she can be excluded.

By quitting AFDC, an ex-welfare recipient is supposedly free of red tape. But to get the child-care aid, she must continue to file regular AFDC eligibility forms or she will be denied the assistance.

There is also a Byzantine set of sub-categories, which determine who can get the assistance and who will be excluded. A family which gets a child into Head Start, for example, gets its income and benefit package recalculated and can lose child-care entitlement. If a stepfather is working, but the mother is in school, that can trigger a termination of child-care aid. A mother who received AFDC for part but not all of the previous year may not qualify.

In short, you almost have to be a lawyer in order to get the benefit. The irony is that a program intended to free people from dependence on bureaucracy has only complicated their entanglement.

You might think that because of the complex issues of just who is entitled, there is no alternative to this bureaucratic paper chase. But according to Barbara Reisman of Family Support Watch, a group which monitors welfare reform, a far higher proportion of people entitled to transitional Medicaid manage to receive it, despite similar issues of eligibility.

But in that case, there is a strong interest group -- hospitals -- which want to make sure they get paid. In the case of child care, both the federal government and most states, facing budget constraints, have kept bureaucratic hurdles as high as possible.

More fundamentally, the real problem is the absence of a comprehensive child-care system not limited to the officially certified poor. There is no such paper chase to determine who shall qualify for public kindergarten on the basis of income, AFDC history or employment -- because everybody is simply eligible as a citizen.

The oldest maxim of social policy remains apt: Programs limited to the poor are poor programs. To which one might add: Administrations that don't believe in decent social policy will manage to sabotage it.

Robert Kuttner is an economist based in Massachusetts.


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