Today Is Pennsylvania's First Big Welfare Reform Deadline Goal Must Be More Self-sufficiency

Posted: March 03, 1999

It's March 3, the first big welfare "reform" deadline, but the city doesn't look like Calcutta yet.

In Philadelphia, a cutoff of cash benefits could affect 18,000 welfare mothers who are not working 20 hours a week by today. With their children, that's more than 50,000 people.

But the cutoffs won't happen immediately; a meeting will be held with each recipient. So the effects of welfare reform will be gradual, harder to see.

According to Gov. Ridge, welfare reform's positive effects are easy to see: 130,000 families in Pennsylvania have left the welfare rolls and have not returned. Some even have become self-sufficient.

For this, they can thank a roaring economy and a sharp nudge from the "we mean business" state Department of Welfare, which demanded that recipients take a job - any job.

But the rosy picture is clouded by evidence that welfare reform is stirring up unintended and disturbing consequences: Despite the strongest economy since the Eisenhower administration, demand on private soup kitchens nationally has exploded. In a survey, 40 percent of clients said they have a chronic food gap.

In Philadelphia last year, homeless shelter requests increased 61 percent.

Wisconsin, which has reduced its welfare rolls 91 percent, has seen an alarming increase in the number of mothers giving their children to relatives to raise.

The 50,000 Philadelphians who now face cash cutoffs are just the first wave. Each month, 2,000 more families statewide will face the work requirement. By July, 2000, 70,000 families will face cutoffs.

And the vast majority will be Philadelphia's problem.

A look at the figures shows why the state Legislature and the governor aren't as excited concerned as we are about it.

Compare Philadelphia's 18,000 families facing cutoffs to Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh and surrounding suburbs. According to a welfare official there, the 1,000 families that face cutoffs should be covered by county welfare-to-work programs. So, when the effects of reform become all too visible, the folks outside Philadelphia won't have to look at it every day.

Each state is wrestling with its own version of welfare reform. Some have learned from experience and made changes. Yet Pennsylvania seems determined to cling to ideology in the face of reality.

If Pennsylvania should decide to actually develop programs to promote self-sufficiency, here's what it could do:

* Exempt children from sanctions. Act 35, Pennsylvania's welfare reform law, now requires that if an adult doesn't meet the work requirement, the whole family loses cash benefits. Not only does that punish children for their parents' failure, it provides an incentive for parents to give over the care of their kids.

* Allow recipients to count education as a work activity for the first 24 months. It doesn't do much good to force a welfare recipient to look for work if she can't read well enough to fill out the application or speak English well enough to ask directions to the job. Act 35 allows education as a work activity for only 12 months; it should be increased to 24.

* Make it easier for welfare recipients to pursue higher education. Illinois has a program Pennsylvania should adopt: Using state funds, it allows students who maintain a 2.5 average to study without having to work.

* Reduce the cost of child care. The amount welfare recipients co-pay for child care recently was increased. The increase should be repealed.

* Improve caseworker training and accountability. In Philadelphia, the number of children on Medicaid has plummeted; caseworkers apparently aren't informing parents that kids still qualify. All across the welfare system, clients are getting incorrect and inconsistent information.

* Establish customer service review. Like Tennessee, the commonwealth should allow an outside agency to determine that the rules have been properly applied.

Members of Philadelphia's clergy have been pleading with the governor to soften the harshest aspects of welfare reform, to give poor kids a break.

Philadelphia may not look like Calcutta yet, but everyone needs to take up that cry. Say it louder, and louder still.

It's a turnoff If you're really as fed up as we Americans say we are with the interminable Sexgate obsession, you can demonstrate it dramatically tonight. When the Barbara Walters-Monica What's-her-name fawnathon comes on screen . . .

Change the channel.

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