Why Welfare Reform Won't Work Again

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Welfare reformers in Maryland are once again asking the eternal question: How can government get people off welfare and into jobs? A gubernatorial commission is scheduled to vote tomorrow on some innovative answers.

Unfortunately, the commission also plans to recommend an onerous and expensive system of sanctions whose sole beneficiary will be the expanded bureaucracy needed to implement it.

But first, the good news. Finally, many people have recognized that much of welfare is a matter of economics. People remain on welfare because there are no jobs or because taking the the lowest paying jobs would leave them and their families worse off economically.

Currently, a family of three on welfare receives $658 in money and food stamps, plus health care. A minimum wage worker makes $731 a month but often also has to pay for child care and receives no medical insurance. According to the state's own calculations, it costs a family of three $1,006 monthly to maintain a minimally adequate standard of living.

Some commentators would say that the solution is to lower welfare benefits. This would only plunge these parents and their children deeper into poverty without reducing the welfare rolls. Witness the last few years in Maryland, where welfare rolls were exploding despite sharply reduced benefits. Not coincidently, Maryland lost 80,000 jobs in 1992 alone. Clearly, welfare is not chosen because it is a better option than work, but because it is often the only option.

The answer is to eliminate the economic barriers to employment and to create more decent paying jobs.

* People who leave welfare for work should keep their medical insurance. Maryland should lead the charge in adopting universal health care for families with children.

* Workers must have access to affordable child care. It hardly makes sense for someone to pay $2.50 an hour for child care in order to take a $4.25-an-hour job.

* The state should fight to increase the federal minimum wage. Currently, the minimum is 22 percent lower than its average level during the 1970s after adjusting for inflation. Workers making the minimum wage still earn almost $2,500 below the poverty line.

Moderate increases in the minimum wage can boost income without significantly reducing the number of jobs. Maryland should also follow the federal government and other states by making its earned income tax credit refundable to help fill the gap between low paying jobs and the poverty line.

* The state should expand family planning services to reduce the numbers of unwanted children. Currently, only 60 percent of eligible citizens receive this assistance, which is vital to stable employment and individual economic progress.

* Since the problem of welfare is in part the problem of the non-payment of child support, a child support assurance system -- in which the government makes support payments to children when a parent fails to -- would further the accountability of the government and ensure the economic security of the children.

This would also encourage a greater commitment on the part of government to aggressively pursue noncustodial parents who do not pay.

* The state should ensure that children graduate from school with skills that enable them to succeed in college or get a job. Poverty is the key indicator of poor performance in school. Yet these poor children go to schools where they receive the least -- the least-trained teachers, the lowest level curriculum, the oldest books, the lowest-financed programs and our lowest % 5/8 expectations. Until we change our present funding structure and begin to reconstitute failing schools, we will continue to pay for our failures in lost productivity, foregone taxes and increased welfare payments.

* Finally, the state should stop penalizing two-parent families and families with stepparents. A good economic support system would not deny assistance to needed children just because their parents are married.

Currently, only 1 percent of welfare families have two adults because of strict eligibility requirements. (Criticizing the present welfare system because so few of the parents are married, is like criticizing Social Security for having so many recipients who are older and disabled: the demography is a product of the program's design, not a commentary on the behavior of the recipients.) Yet adding a second adult is one of the most effective ways to boost a family out of poverty and dependency.

These initiatives will dramatically reduce the percentage of people who remain on welfare for extended periods of time. However, we know that some chronic recipients will remain. For these people, a more intensive system is needed.

Yet, we should not exaggerate how extensive the problem of welfare dependency is likely to be. Currently, 55 percent to 70 percent of recipients leave welfare within two years. For these people, welfare is basically working as it should -- as a temporary safety net -- and does not need alteration. And this high turnover rate should increase greatly under the initiatives described above. Only a small minority will remain.

Members of this chronic group have special problems. They are often second-generation recipients who lack high school educations and have limited work experience. Some became mothers as teen-agers and now have several children. Many have learning disabilities, while others have disabled children requiring extensive services.

The Governor's Commission on Welfare Policy is proposing a system of escalating sanctions on these recipients unless they comply with rules. Recipients who fail to conform to rules will suffer reductions in benefits and the potential loss of their children to foster care.

Because our present system's primary goal was ensuring that people did not fraudulently receive welfare checks, we never collected the kind of data that we need to make decisions about what are the most effective strategies. For example, we don't know how many teen parents are receiving welfare benefits or how long people stay on welfare. Nor do we know whether sanctions (cutting grants), job training or job creation would be the most effective way to increase self-sufficiency. However, without any kind of data on these issues, the welfare commission is proposing to make monumental changes that will affect the basic subsistence level of 80,000 families in Maryland.

But using a stick to pressure people into employment is like trying to convince someone to cross a wide, bottomless chasm without a bridge. Stable, decent-paying jobs simply don't exist for these undereducated and under-experienced people. And even if decent jobs existed, many welfare recipients lack the skills to do them.

Many will fail in the crossing. And when they fall into that chasm, they will drag with them thousands of children who are already the poorest group of Americans.

We can do better. The millions upon millions of dollars proposed for a bureaucracy of sanction-givers could be better spent on building a bridge across the chasm and making sure the other side really exists.

The chronic welfare recipients need training. Training not only in the three R's but also in parenting skills and life management. The training must be intensive and long-lasting. After all, an adult with a third-grade reading ability has years of undereducation and defeatism to erase.

The training should lead to stable, decent jobs -- jobs that lead somewhere. If the jobs are there, people will flock to the training programs that prepare them for employment. They won't need threats.

If we want people to work, we must create jobs. Instead of spending millions expanding the welfare bureaucracy, the state should spend money on apprenticeship programs and help companies expand with publicly subsidized workers. The state can hire welfare recipients for desperately needed public works projects.

Give the people the skills they need and offer a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and they will walk across that chasm voluntarily, eagerly and with human dignity. Fundamentally, people want independence and economic opportunity for themselves and their families.

A good carrot is better than an unwieldy stick.

Susan Leviton is an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. The president of Advocates for Children and Youth, she is a member of the Governor's Commission on Welfare Policy.

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