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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON WELFARE

We're 'Reforming' Without Facts, Putting Children at Risk

No studies have been done on how poor kids are hurt or helped when their parents are forced to take low-wage jobs.

January 09, 1998|LEONARD SCHNEIDERMAN | Leonard Schneiderman is professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research. E-mail: lschneid@ucla.edu

In our preoccupation with moving parents from welfare to work, we have forgotten the children. Welfare's purpose, the reduction of child poverty, has been completely drowned out in the all-consuming public focus on adult recipients of public aid.

Welfare--formerly Aid to Families With Dependent Children, now Temporary Assistance to Needy Families nationally and CalWorks in California--is the nation's largest and most important program against child poverty. Its primary defining characteristic remains unreformed. Welfare "as we knew it" and "as it will be" is a program to assist impoverished children and those who care for them.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that from 1990 to 1994, the number of California children living in poverty increased from 900,000 to 1.4 million. With 12% of the nation's population, California accounted for 25% of the nation's total growth in child poverty. We know that insecurity and poverty are harmful to children. With one in four children living in poverty, with poverty's link to crime, school failure, disability and unemployment, it seems prudent to consider what a further increase might mean for our future and to assess how effectively we are addressing the problem.

Does welfare reduce child poverty? Are kids on welfare healthier, better fed and housed, safer, more successful in school than they would be without such aid? Do welfare children avoid hunger and homelessness, stay healthy, complete school, become self-sufficient adults, experience less abuse? Remarkably, no one knows.

So complete is our preoccupation with parents that we regularly collect data about the personal histories of adult heads of households, but little or nothing about the status of children. We spend millions detecting adult fraud, virtually nothing detecting the program's impact on kids. This is remarkable for a program intended to aid children.

How will we know if welfare reform is successful? Reformers have argued that children benefit greatly when parents are self-reliant and economically independent rather than dependent on the state for their support. But no one yet knows whether we will actually design, fund and sustain a program that will move parents from welfare to a job at a living wage. The record thus far is not reassuring. Even in Los Angeles County's welfare-to-work program, which has received a national service excellence award, 85% of welfare recipients placed in employment remain on the welfare rolls because they cannot earn enough to provide their families with the minimum necessities.

Welfare reform is a gigantic experiment in changing human behavior, a leap into the unknown. We are not sure how it will work or how much it will cost. It may succeed. It may fail. We will not know unless we force ourselves to honestly collect data about both the bad and the good news.

Welfare reform was signed into law by President Clinton in August 1996 and by Gov. Pete Wilson this past August. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors, which this week approved a preliminary reform plan to submit to the state, must complete review and consideration of other aspects of the plan by April.

It is worrisome to reflect on how little policymakers know about what the impact of the program they are reforming will be on the children it is intended to help. To its credit, the county Department of Public Social Services has proposed a radical and ambitious change in how we measure program outcomes. For the first time, the county will have data about the program's impact on the health, safety, education and well-being of children. Let us hope that the Board of Supervisors fund and staff this plan and avoid the false economies of dismissing data gathering and reporting as unnecessary administrative costs.

Choosing not to know is choosing not to care. And that is impossible to defend when decisions are being made that place children at risk.

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