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States Provide Models for Welfare Reform

January 19, 1988|HARRY BERNSTEIN

It would take only some common sense compromising--not a miracle--for Congress to make worthwhile, fundamental changes in America's ineffective welfare system after talking about doing it for more than 50 years. If President Reagan doesn't veto the effort, that is.

The House has already passed a bill, and the Senate is considering legislation to provide financial assistance to state programs that are designed to help some of those who are able to work to end their dependency on welfare.

There still are serious differences on the issue in Congress between labor-backed liberals and conservatives. The disputes are over everything from the amount of federal money needed for welfare reform to labor's demand for assurance that the welfare recipients do not displace currently employed workers.

But, surprisingly, agreement has been reached on some ideas once considered radical in Washington and in the many states now in the midst of welfare reform of their own.

For instance, there seems to be substantial agreement on an obvious need: government-supported child-care programs for welfare recipients who must have it to hold a job. (Similar programs are needed, of course, for those not on welfare.)

The attitude toward welfare reform has undergone a dramatic change since 1971, when Ronald Reagan was governor of California and instituted his own version of "welfare reform." In effect, that cruel plan required recipients who were physically able to work to get a job or be cut from the welfare roll.

Today, just about everybody agrees that the "work-or-else" scheme was a terrible idea, and even then few counties in California adopted it. Despite Reagan's claims that his program put 76,000 people into "private enterprise jobs," state records show that only about 8,000 recipients took part in the Reagan program between 1972 and 1975, and nobody knows how many of them actually found work.

Now there seems to be a growing consensus that for welfare reform to work, recipients must be offered child care, remedial education, an assessment of their potential skills, extensive job training and help in finding a job in the private sector or a government-provided job.

California's present welfare reform program, Greater Avenues for Independence, or GAIN, carries the ultimate threat of a loss of benefits, and that amounts to a form of forced labor.

But financial aid rarely is cut off under the 2-year-old California program--it happens only after recipients have received such GAIN benefits as remedial education and job training.

Massachusetts' welfare system, another model for the nation, provides benefits similar to California's, but with one critical difference: Its system is voluntary. In other words, recipients in Massachusetts can choose either to be in the program or to stay on welfare and not get the additional worker-assistance benefits.

A voluntary system makes sense because it is difficult to get productive work out of people who are forced into jobs they don't want.

Advocates of mandatory plans argue that welfare recipients who get, among other things, decent child care, remedial education and job training do well and are almost always satisfied with the temporary work they are pushed into because it can lead to better, permanent jobs.

In any case, there isn't nearly enough money in any of the proposals to pay for all of the worker-assistance programs that would be needed if all welfare recipients were forced to use them. Massachusetts, for example, has waiting lines for its voluntary worker-assistance programs.

The debate was heightened last week in California when Gov. George Deukmejian called for a 25% reduction in the GAIN program for the next fiscal year. Even if the budget isn't cut, there won't be enough money to reach all of the state's eligible welfare recipients.

One major problem is that a new study shows that 67% of California's welfare recipients don't have the very basic skills needed to get and keep a job, skills like being able to read, write and do simple addition.

The original estimate was that only about 20% would need remedial education and some job training. That means much more money is needed than originally anticipated to educate and train welfare recipients for work.

At the national level, Reagan has said he will veto the House-passed welfare reform bill because, among other things, it costs too much: about $1 billion each year over the next five years.

The House bill would not save money in the short run. But since we now spend about $15 billion each year on Aid to Families with Dependent Children, surely we ought to be willing to spend a fraction of that to set up a system that promises to at least help break the old system that has kept about 20% of welfare recipients on public aid indefinitely.

A cheaper version of welfare reform is pending in the Senate, and while it is inadequate, an acceptable compromise could come out of a Senate-House conference committee.

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