WILL Democrats use their new power in Washington to imperil welfare reform? Already, House Democrats have passed, in the stimulus bill, a provision to help states pay for added welfare spending if rolls rise in the next two years.
That doesnt challenge reforms fundamentals - but a liberal push is on to loosen those basic rules. Consider yesterdays New York Times front-page “news” story, arguing that somethings gone wrong because the rolls havent ballooned as the economy tanked: The piece didnt even consider that the new 2005 reform, which prompted states to re-energize their efforts to get recipients back to work, may be succeeding.
When President Bill Clinton signed the landmark 1996 welfare reform, even the new laws backers didnt anticipate just how dramatically public-assistance rolls would drop. That measure put time limits on public assistance and required some recipients to return to work - and in the next five years, caseloads fell by nearly 60 percent, or 5 million.
In fact, by the time the reform came up for reauthorization in 2002, rolls had fallen so far that many state agencies (which administer the program) no longer felt pressure to move clients back into the workforce. What followed was a three-year fight to re-energize state welfare-to-work efforts - with the “keep reform going” side winning with a 2005 law.
The next phase in welfare reform could bring traditional cash aid as we know it to an end in all but the most extreme cases - if reform foes dont prevent it.
At issue is just what counts as “moving someone back to the workforce.” The 96 law gave states enormous flexibility in fulfilling its requirements, and many interpreted them liberally. Some counted as “work readiness” the hours that recipients spent on home exercise, “motivational reading” or antismoking classes, a Government Accountability Office study found.
Despite such laxity, millions left the rolls because (as policymakers discovered) simply compelling recipients to meet with caseworkers to discuss work options was enough to propel many out the door to look for jobs. The number leaving was so big, in fact, that by 2002 many states could meet the goals set for them in the 1996 law without sending many new recipients back to work.
That led to the three-year battle to reauthorize and reenergize welfare reform. Now, thanks to the 2005 law, states must get 40 percent to 50 percent of their adult welfare recipients back to work - or at least searching for a job or otherwise preparing to work.
But the same advocates and politicians who falsely predicted that the 96 reform would lead to mass suffering are back, claiming that many remaining recipients are too troubled to hold a job - that they have “multiple barriers to work,” in social-service jargon. Some groups, for instance, consider the lack of a high-school diploma and English proficiency as obstacles that should excuse a recipient from having to find employment.
The 2005 law embraced the “work first” philosophy that emerged in the 80s. This holds that many clients biggest obstacle to a job is their own lack of understanding of workplace fundamentals - showing up regularly and on time, for instance. The best way to help such people isnt elaborate job-training or counseling programs, but simply to get them working, even in entry-level positions, under a caseworkers careful supervision.
A work-first approach helped bring a deep drop in New York Citys welfare rolls - from 1.1 million to 475,000 under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and down another 25 percent, to 336,000, under Mayor Bloomberg.
Yet many who wind up on welfare today remain “work ready,” says city Human Resources Administration Commisioner Robert Doar - which is why the city has been able to place some 70,000 to 80,000 of them a year in jobs.
Most people leaving welfare will wind up in entry-level jobs. But with other aid (like the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps and Medicaid), a recipients annual income can rise well above $20,000. Thats not enough for an extravagant lifestyle in New York, but it can get you started down the road to independence.
Facing the new requirements, states are reshaping their programs along work-first lines. Over the last two years, 17 states have adopted more stringent rules requiring their private contractors to meet job-placement targets or risk penalties. States are also requiring welfare applicants to begin job searches or undergo employment counseling much more quickly.
Eleven states have altered procedures to include an employment assessment when someone first applies for welfare. Programs are also launching more joint private-public training aimed at funneling recipients directly into jobs.
But no one knows how Obamas White House will carry out the law under new Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Daschle. As Senate majority leader, Daschle stalled welfare reauthorization for years until he lost his seat in 2004.
Congress most powerful Democrats have also opposed welfare reform. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called it “punitive and unrealistic,” while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has criticized reform in language strikingly similar to social-service advocates.
At the very least, Congress may unwind key elements of the 2005 law. Or it could go further and curtail some of the original 1996 bills mandates.
Will we fight the welfare-reform battle all over again? Perhaps Obama - already facing recession and war - will insist that his allies in Congress not re-open an ideological debate over policies that are clearly working.
Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/02032009/postopinion/opedcolumnists/will_dems_move_to_gut_welfare_reform__153303.htm