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Welfare reform again.

Talk about welfare reform has not changed much since 1988, when the Federal Family Support Act went into effect, and President Clinton's latest plan to "overhaul" the welfare system is more of the same.

For years now, there has been widespread agreement that the current welfare system does not work. To a surprising degree, those who have studied the problem concur about what has to change in order to make things better: Jobs, training, health care, child care, and transportation for the working poor would enable people to pull themselves out of the poverty trap.

As it stands, the welfare system penalizes the poor for working by cutting a dollar of benefits for every dollar they earn. Furthermore, welfare recipients lose their Medicaid when they take low-paying, service-sector jobs. Parents have the added problem of finding somewhere safe and affordable to put their children when they go to work - a daunting problem even for the middle class.

The Family Support Act recognized these problems, and proposed to deal with many of them by providing job training, transportation, child care, and a variety of experimental programs administered by state governments, designed to move people off welfare and into work. Now President Clinton, who helped draft the Family Support Act, is promising to "end welfare as we know it" through job training, child care, and a major initiative to move people into jobs.

Why do we keep seeing the same solutions repackaged in new welfare plans? And why haven't the old plans worked to solve widely recognized problems? The devil is in the details - more specifically, in the budget.

The Clinton "overhaul," like the welfare overhauls attempted under the Family Support Act in all fifty states, promises to pay for itself through savings from cuts to social-service programs. Simultaneously, it promises to expand job training, child-care, and other benefits for people on welfare as well as for the working poor.

Members of Congress are understandably skeptical about a major new program that claims to save money and solve major social problems, especially since the Clinton team has not revealed how much money is involved or where the savings will come from.

In fact, saving money on social services and fixing the welfare system are incompatible goals. Just look at what happened under the Family Support Act: State governments, strapped for funds, tried to purge their welfare rolls through programs that docked benefits when welfare recipients failed to meet certain conditions.

When money for the promised transportation, child care, etc., was nowhere to be found in state budgets, the emphasis of these programs rapidly shifted away from offering "support" and toward "personal responsibility" - that is, punishing the poor if their children skipped too many days of school, if single mothers had more than one baby, if families didn't pay the rent on time, if welfare applicants refused to be fingerprinted, and other draconian and arbitrary policies, which varied from state to state. Some states reported nominal "cost savings" as they withdrew social services and kicked people off the welfare rolls. But the problems of poverty, unemployment, and related ills continued to grow.

Bill Clinton wants the poor to get jobs, and he says he'll create a work program that will make it possible for the unemployed to move off welfare and start supporting their families within two years. But the details about these jobs - where they will come from, how many will be public and how many private - are quite vague. At this point there is a clause in the program prohibiting states from enforcing the prescribed two-year time limit on welfare if the economy is bad and there are no jobs available. That is just common sense. But then, this sort of common-sense gesture is exactly what went by the wayside under the Family Support Act. At least, one can still hope that the Clinton plan will do no great harm. But what about applying some real solutions to the problems faced by people on welfare?

In its statement of purpose, the Clinton plan includes a line that says it will reinforce "the traditional values of work, family, support, and responsibility." It's alarming to survey the outcomes of previous efforts to put those values into practice.

When money is tight, the easiest thing for the Government to do is to treat poverty as an attitude problem. By ignoring the concrete, practical obstacles poor people face and simply blaming lazy welfare bums for poverty, many politicians have taken the low road to nowhere.

Poverty and unemployment are neither attitude problems nor historical aberrations. Unless we're willing to invest money in the poor, and in creating decent, well-paying jobs with benefits, we're going to be contemplating the same problems again in another few years, wondering why we haven't got a handle on them yet.
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Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jan 1, 1994
Previous Article:Clinton's hot kitchen.
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