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Time-Limited Welfare--a Reform for the '90s? : Success of idea likely to hinge on helping people shift into the work force

WELFARE WATCH. One in an occasional series.

January 16, 1994

Two years on welfare and that's it. This provocative policy prescription for welfare reform is gaining currency at the White House and several statehouses. But the idea can work only if adequate supports are provided for a transition from welfare to work.

Time-limited welfare is the brainchild of welfare expert David T. Ellwood. He outlined how it could succeed in his noteworthy book, "Poor Support: Poverty in the American Family," published in 1988. Ellwood, then a Harvard professor, linked limited benefits to job training, education, public service jobs, universal health care, adequate child care, greater child support enforcement, an enhanced earned income tax, an increased minimum wage and other steps that attack the causes of poverty and make work worth more than welfare.

Ellwood is now a chair of President Clinton's welfare reform task force, which is considering fundamental changes in Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the nation's largest welfare program. A veteran advocate for the poor, Ellwood rightly insists that government should expect more from poor parents and provide more to help them become self-sufficient.

The American Public Welfare Assn., which represents state and local welfare directors, last week outlined a sophisticated plan that parallels many of the Clinton Administration recommendations. It calls for more government services such as education, job training and public service jobs as a safety net.

The welfare directors' plan would require new recipients to participate in job training or classes for two years and then take the first job they found--or a government-provided job. If they refused a job, they would lose 25% of their cash benefits and food stamps. That penalty, we think, is preferable to ending all cash assistance after two years, which is what Gov. Pete Wilson recently proposed here in California and which Wisconsin will try next year in two counties that have low unemployment rates. Taking away all benefits could dramatically increase the growing number of homeless children.

A two-year limit would not affect the 30% of parents who use welfare as a temporary bridge over hard times. It would put newcomers on notice that the rules are changing, and give them time to prepare.

Long-term recipients, the 30% who stay on much longer than two years, would get more time to become employable under the welfare directors' plan because that would be phased in over six years. Many would need the extra time because they have no skills and no work experience. Although these poor parents would not have to find jobs as quickly as new recipients, they would be expected to do something--take classes, attend drug counseling, care for a disabled child or work in a community service job--in exchange for benefits. Requiring some sort of service or obligation would encourage independence.

The welfare directors' pragmatic plan acknowledges the reality that some welfare recipients would refuse to take jobs. Local welfare departments would evaluate those parents to determine whether they couldn't work because of a physical illness or emotional problem and should receive federal disability aid. If competent, able-bodied recipients refused to work or improve their skills, they would lose some benefits. Exemptions should be made for welfare recipients who must care for a disabled child or elderly relative, and for emergencies such as loss of housing, inadequate child care or lack of transportation.

The welfare directors estimate that their plan would cost $15 billion over six years. That price tag generates no enthusiasm in Washington. Nor does their recommendation that the federal government increase its share of welfare costs from the current 60% to 90%. But perhaps Congress would go along if it could be persuaded that, in the long run, reform would reduce welfare costs (AFDC expenditures are about $25 billion annually). It would also help if the Administration identified new revenues or made budget cuts so as not to add to the deficit.

The Republicans cannot be ignored on welfare reform. They too have some ideas about how to put poor parents in jobs. Common ground is possible--as the consensus in the bipartisan welfare directors' group proves.

Americans want welfare reform. A reasonable time limit coupled with transitional support would encourage work, independence and responsibility without hurting poor children.

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