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Soap Opera Solutions

February 13, 1986

There he goes again. President Reagan has his own rosy recollection of his welfare reform program as governor of California in 1971. Three times in the past week--most recently in his Tuesday press conference--Reagan has boasted in great detail of the success of the workfare portion of the reforms. In one meeting with White House reporters, he said, "It's worked like gangbusters."

With only grudging help from the Nixon Administration, which limited the extent of the 1971 experiment, the state still was able to place 76,000 California welfare recipients in private enterprise jobs, the President claimed.

But in fact, the Reagan workfare experiment was not gangbusters, but a bust. Only about 8,000 welfare recipients ever took part in the program, according to state records. There is no record of how many actually went off of welfare and onto private payrolls. The workfare plan died a quiet death at the end of its three-year trial period with few regrets. The simple work-or-else plan under Reagan bears little resemblance to modern job-training plans that have been adopted in a number of states including Massachusetts and, just last year, California.

The President has cited his aborted 15-year-old California plan in discussing his proposed year-long study of welfare with the goal of breaking the dependency chain and moving recipients into the work force. In a budget briefing for White House correspondents, he specifically said the 1971 California plan could serve as a model for this.

Clearly, the modern forms of workfare have some promise and political support. Massachusetts officials have trained an estimated 23,000 recipients and put them in jobs with the assistance of the federal Work Incentive program, which provided funds for child care and transportation. But the President's new budget would wipe out the $180 million Work Incentive program (down from $278 million in 1985)and, contrary to what the President said Tuesday, the Job Training Partnership Act would not replace that money. Further, the new budget would cut the successful Job Corps program from $614 million to $398 million. All Employment and Training Administration funds in the Labor Department would decline from $4.5 billion to $3.7 billion. Welfare would be cut, too.

The President may be forgiven for engaging in nostalgia about California a decade and a half ago, but his budget released barely a week ago tells quite a different story. It seems to send a clear message that prejudges the 1986 welfare study:Let's see how we can get more of these people off the rolls.

Sadly, the fables about welfare mothers driving their Cadillacs to pick up their checks seems to be alive and well in the White House. In his private meetings with reporters and editors, the President recalled a letter he got back in the 1970s from a former California welfare mother. Frightened of being forced to work or lose her welfare, she took $600 she had saved from her welfare checks and moved her children to Alaska where she got a job. The President related how happy and grateful she was. He added she said "It sure beats daytime TV."

A touching story out of the past, perhaps even true. But Washington and the states must work together to deal with the reality of 1986, and soap opera tales will not solve the welfare problem.

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