• U.S.

FIXING WELFARE RIGHT

5 minute read
Michael Kramer

Welfare as America has known it since the Depression is just about dead and buried. The end game began in the Senate on Saturday, and the debate is already furious. Some of the proposed bill’s prescriptions, such as requiring teen mothers on welfare to live at home or attend school, are long overdue. And Bob Dole has cleverly worked to smooth the harshest provisions of the House legislation. The drive to cut funds to moms who have more kids while on welfare, for example, would be left for the states as an option rather than mandated by Washington. That’s the good news. The rest ranges from moderately bad to callous and counterproductive.

The central change involves ending welfare as an entitlement. Being poor will no longer mean automatic qualification for benefits, so some needy people will be ignored. Worse still, the entire level of federal welfare spending will be cut by about $70 billion over seven years, and the states will be spared the burden of contributing any money at all. No state is likely to be that cruel, but curtailing their obligations is stupid. Currently, states contribute about 40% of the entire pie of cash welfare assistance, and it’s the level of state participation–the dollar amount per recipient–that now governs Washington’s piece of the total funding. That’s why benefit levels among states vary so dramatically. If states are no longer required to pony up their own funds as a condition of federal help, the money they do earmark for welfare will have to compete with every other program. In battles like those, the politically powerless lose, and no group has less clout than the poor. In fact, this truism has already caused welfare benefits to decline about 40% in constant dollars over the past 20 years. States strapped for cash–as all of them are–cut welfare first.

Considered together, the new bill’s changes will make a mockery of the proclaimed goal of “reforming” welfare by moving people off the dole and into work. There’s little use bemoaning this future; the votes are there. But there’s still a chance to improve the Senate bill with floor amendments.

As an entitlement, welfare spending currently rises when recessions hit, which is the system’s least objectionable aspect. Workers laid off during hard times deserve help, and that assistance is usually temporary. Under the new law, spending won’t increase during recessions (which also helps end the economic decline), so those most worthy could be left in the cold. The “contingency fund” that several Republican Governors favor could alleviate this deficiency. “There has to be some give in the program,” says Ohio Governor George Voinovich, whose own welfare reforms are among the most intelligent in the country. “But it takes money,” Voinovich concedes, “and too many in Congress, including too many in my own party, simply haven’t a clue about what it’s really like to be poor in this country. Yet if we’re supposed to get serious about getting people to work, which is what everyone says, then we’ve got to spend what it takes.” Voinovich would also have contingency funds available for job training and child care, “without which,” he says, “no serious welfare-to-work program can do the job.”

The Senate bill is supposedly all about work–but that conceit is the biggest sham of all. On paper the bill appears tough: states without 50% of their welfare recipients “working” by the year 2000 will have their federal funding reduced 5%. But at least 44 states, says the Congressional Budget Office, which is now controlled by the G.O.P., couldn’t meet that goal because they’d have to spend about two-thirds of the welfare money they get from Washington just on work programs, thereby leaving way too little for benefit payments.”But that’s the least of it,” says Voinovich. “The critical questions are how to define work and who to exempt from the requirement. I mean, it’s 50% of what? Right now, there are no exemptions contemplated. Some of us think that women with kids under three years old shouldn’t be considered in the calculation, especially since we say we want to promote strong families.” As for defining “work,” Voinovich is incensed that education programs don’t meet the criteria. “We’re supposed to be getting these people work that can sustain them, but most don’t have the skills they need. Schooling is key. Excluding education from the calculus is ridiculous.”

In theory, Bill Clinton could help. But the President who talks about “fixing welfare right” and who’s threatening to disapprove bills that offend him has pointedly refused to say he would veto the Senate bill if it doesn’t contain the changes that people like Voinovich insist are “urgently needed.” And that’s because it was Clinton who pledged to “end welfare as we know it,” and Clinton who bought into the idea of reform on the cheap when he touted his own welfare changes: “First of all,” he said, “they’ll save money.” The political reality, explains a Clinton adviser, “is that people don’t understand that real reform requires spending more, not less, and the President can’t have voters think he’s soft on welfare reform.” So don’t expect this Democrat to march with the poor.

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