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San Jose Mercury News

Another look at reasons for positive welfare report
August 1, 2001

Yet another study has declared America's 5-year-old welfare reform law a success, but it draws a different conclusion about the reason. This time, it's not the economy.

With welfare caseloads cut in half and single mothers joining the workforce in staggering numbers, it appears that one goal of the 1996 law--to change welfare from a way of life to a temporary crutch--is within reach. But many researchers believe the booming economy in the late 1990s provided an unrealistic test of the new law. It's unclear what will happen now, with layoffs increasing and welfare recipients hitting their five-year time limit on benefits.

A report released July 26 by the Manhattan Institute concludes that getting welfare recipients to work had little to do with the good times. Two economics professors affiliated with the conservative think tank argue that work requirements and other new provisions of state and federal welfare programs had a much greater effect on welfare recipients than the economy did.

This conclusion was based on comparisons of the success rates of various state reform programs going back to 1983. The researchers found that work requirements led to higher employment, regardless of the economy.

In the case of the 1996 law, they conclude that the new rules account for half of the drop in the welfare roles and 60 percent of the increase in employment among single mothers. The economy accounted for less than 20 percent of the changes.

It's easier to find work when jobs are plentiful, but this study is a reminder not to underestimate the impact of work requirements. Even young, poorly educated single mothers got the message. Most were able to find at least part-time work, and many decided they preferred working to collecting welfare.

This profound shift in social policy also is believed to have played a role in the decline in the teen pregnancy rate.

But reducing welfare dependency was just one goal of welfare reform. Another was to give children hope for the future and a way out of poverty. Progress toward this goal is less impressive.

While caseloads are down 50 percent, child poverty in this country is down only 17 percent--despite the economy. While 80 percent of the poor work, those working full-time at minimum-wage jobs remain well below the poverty line. Many of those entry-level jobs include no career path to better ones.

As Congress takes up the reauthorization of the welfare reform law, it must acknowledge the success of welfare-to-work programs--but also place a higher priority on reducing child poverty and giving hard-working parents some hope of raising their standard of living.

It could begin by restoring food-stamp cuts and medical care for immigrants that were cut in the 1996 bill, and by giving states incentives to reduce poverty through increased housing, child-care and transportation subsidies.

Sending mothers into the workforce has proved to be a manageable task. Improving the lives of America's children is the more difficult challenge.

©2001 San Jose Mercury News



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