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Three Proposals for Reforming Welfare Reform

It is evident that employment for parents does not, in itself, assure the economic well-being of the nation's children.

January 06, 2002|LEONARD SCHNEIDERMAN

Funding for the welfare reforms passed in 1996 will expire on Sept. 30, by which time Congress must decide whether to reauthorize the law as written or to make changes. Already, debate is heating up.

This week, the Los Angeles County Commission for Public Social Services will consider several proposals developed by advocates for the law's revision. The county, which has the nation's largest welfare caseload, is being asked to sponsor these positions in the upcoming national debate on reauthorization. They are excellent ideas.

The first proposal calls for new ways of measuring the reforms' success, keeping in mind the "centrality of the law's concern with poor children." It urges measuring success not merely by "reductions in caseload size and cost," but also by examining whether the number of children living in poverty is going down.

Welfare--whether the current Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or the former Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)--is primarily a program for poor children. Indigent adults are not eligible for welfare payments. Adults are eligible for financial assistance only if they serve as caregivers for eligible indigent children, who are the law's central concern. The current emphasis on moving adults from welfare to work, while a major step forward in promoting a family's ability to care for its own, has distracted public attention from the program's primary interest in protecting the well-being of children.

Why is reaffirming that focus important? Since the passage of reform welfare caseloads have declined by almost 50% nationally. The national child poverty rate, however, has declined at a much slower rate: from one in every five American children to one in every six (leaving us still with the highest percentage of poor children in the developed world).

The contrasting trajectories of sharply declining welfare caseloads and more modestly declining child poverty rates suggest that fewer and fewer of the nation's impoverished children may be assisted by this legislation. Further, while increasing numbers of welfare recipients are employed, and the overall child poverty rate is down, the Children's Defense Fund, using recent census data, reports that the number of poor children living in families with full-time employed parents has actually increased. It is evident that labor force participation by parents does not, in itself, assure the economic well-being of the nation's children.

Studies of child poverty show clearly that children left in poverty suffer disproportionately from untreated health problems and often cannot benefit from education because they are too ill, hungry or subject to the many instabilities which poverty visits on the lives of families.

The second proposal the county is being asked to back would urge the federal government to stop the clock on limits to time on welfare when a recipient is taking concrete steps to find employment.

Public opinion supports time limits on dependency and opposes any system that fosters inter-generational dependency. A five-year lifetime limit on benefits makes sense, but we need to distinguish between time limits on "dependency" and time limits on a participant's "full effort" to seek stable employment. TANF now allows stopping the clock in limited circumstances of exceptional need. That authority should be expanded to stop the clock when participants are engaged in approved activities to prepare themselves for self-sufficiency. Activities that qualify to stop the clock should be those specifically intended to remove obstacles to employment, like education, job training, treatment of mental illness, overcoming learning or physical disabilities, substance abuse and control of domestic violence.

We need to allow families an opportunity to overcome the barriers that block their progress from welfare to work. Reports from the Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit public policy research group in Los Angeles, make it clear that despite tenacious efforts to remain in the labor force progress by families over the last five years has been slow even in a favorable labor market. Time limits can serve as an incentive to motivate progress toward economic independence if those time limits recognize and support the actual efforts made by participants to find their way into the labor force.

A third proposal the county is being asked to support would advocate removing obstacles to the more flexible use of education and training in welfare reform efforts. Welfare recipients are a heterogeneous population. Some could benefit immediately from the discipline and responsibilities of work. For others, access to education or training may be the best pathway to employment.

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