Welfare In Hard Times Time To Rethink Some Clinton-era Reforms

Posted: January 04, 2002

THE SUCCESS of welfare reform - if you measure success in reduced welfare rolls - was achieved against the background of the best U.S. economy ever.

But in two months, 7,726 adults and 19,498 children in Pennsylvania will reach the five-year lifetime limits mandated by the national welfare reform law. (Philadelphia is home to 77 percent of those recipients.)

And instead of good times, the economy is in recession, and unemployment is growing. This means fiercer competition for the unskilled jobs at the bottom of the income ladder for those least likely to succeed. And, almost by definition, recipients who have not been able to get off welfare at all in the past five years are the hardest to place.

Now, after years of drastic drops, the welfare rolls have started to rise slightly - in keeping with what experts fear is a national trend.

So Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare is wise to extend Transitional Aid for Needy Families to everyone until at least June, when new regulations will be adopted. After that, the state will offer recipients various ways to continue their benefits - including an intensive case management as well as work and community service programs.

The state's approach to the new regulations indicates an understanding of the multiple issues faced by many on welfare: mental or physical illness, a family in crisis, caring for someone with a disability or domestic violence. These problems aren't time-limited; they don't go away even if a welfare recipient is desperately seeking work.

As welfare reform in Pennsylvania moves into a new phase, the state also should re-evaluate its approach to moving people from welfare to work before their five-year limits: How well does the state's "work first" requirement hold up in a recession?

We also hope that welfare officials will recognize the important difference between a workfare program, in which people do community service in exchange for their grants, and subsidized work, in which welfare recipients work at real jobs at wages subsidized by government money.

People in that last group do so much better: They qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, and get more in the way of real experience and opportunity to advance. And most of their fellow citizens don't begrudge supporting people who are sincerely trying to become self-sufficient. *

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