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Assessing Welfare Reform


Congress passed legislation in 1988 requiring welfare recipients to join a job-training or education program. In one of the first large-scale assessments since then, researchers in California reported this week that reforms there have raised the earnings of welfare recipients and reduced state payouts. That's encouraging news for Maryland and other states.

The California study found that those who participated in welfare-to-work programs earned 17 percent more than those who did not, and that welfare payments to participants were 5 percent lower than to non-participants.

The emerging consensus among policy makers is that government public assistance programs must discourage long-term welfare dependency while remaining part of the nation's social safety net. In Maryland, notable strides have been made through Project Independence, which offers child care and job training to welfare recipients who participate in the program. But the education and training slots available are relatively small.

Moreover, the earnings of graduates of welfare-to-work programs remain very low. Though there is marked improvement in the self-esteem of women who have moved from welfare to work, managing day-to-day can be a struggle -- particularly when, as in Maryland, benefits such as child-care allowances and health insurance are phased out after the first year. And it is unclear whether cutting welfare benefits, as Maryland and other states have done, actually makes working more attractive.

During a welfare recipient's first year off the rolls, the financial situation can be so precarious that a major setback -- an illness or a lost job -- can easily force that individual back on welfare. States are moving in the right direction by encouraging welfare recipients to become self-supporting. But the support system for these former aid recipients has to be improved to ensure long-term success.

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