Don't Expect Miracles
But a Few Rules Would Go a Long Way Toward Fixing the Welfare Mess
By Douglas J. Besharov
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post, July 23, 1995.
BILL CLINTON promised to "end welfare as we know it," and it looks
as if the Republican Congress is about to help him keep his word -- but probably
not in the way he intended.
The president's rhetoric has moved the welfare debate sharply to
the right, freeing conservatives to go further than Ronald Reagan ever dreamed,
and undercutting liberal and moderate support for the status quo.
All the major bills before Congress -- Democratic as well as
Republican -- end the permanent guarantee of federal assistance to the poor and
impose strict time limits on federal benefits. The House has already passed its
bill and, although action in the Senate is temporarily stalled on the
high-stakes question of how to divide block grants among the states, nearly
everyone involved assumes a similar bill will pass there as well. Clinton may
insist on some changes but has signalled his willingness to go along with the
If so, it'll be up to the states to devise programs to keep poor
mothers and their children from living on the streets. Unfortunately, Congress
seems poised to make a series of decisions that will make this task considerably
harder. As Washington politicians try to patch together a final bill, here are
some key principles they should keep in mind:
n't shred the safety net for divorced mothers. Political rhetoric
tends to focus on long-term welfare dependency and the social problems
associated with it. But despite the bashing it receives, welfare provides
important -- and temporary -- assistance to many mothers. About half the women
who go on welfare in any given year, for example, are off in less than two
years. These women, who tend to be older and newly divorced, use welfare as it
should be -- as a temporary assist while they put their lives back together.
Appreciate the power of the earnings/benefits trap. About 65
percent of the mothers on welfare, however, have been on for eight years or
more. Most of these mothers had their first babies as unwed teens, often as high
school dropouts, and simply lack the ability to earn more than welfare provides.
Many leave welfare for a job -- only to return after discovering that their
paychecks are smaller than their combined package of welfare, food stamps,
housing and Medicaid benefits. There are only two ways that welfare policy can
help low-skilled mothers escape this trap: raise their earnings, or lower (or
end) their benefits.
Don't count on job training. For 30 years, the central canon of
welfare reform has been raising skills to raise earnings. But even the most
richly funded job-trainingprograms have had only modest success in helping
mothers work their way off welfare; none has had any proven success with unwed
teen mothers, the core of long-term recipients. That's why, even though
candidate Clinton promised up to two years of job training before requiring
recipients to work, his actual welfare plan did not emphasize job training.
In fact, many experts now believe that job training is less
effective than simply encouraging recipients to look for work. For example, a
recent evaluation of welfare reform programs in three cities (Atlanta, Grand
Rapids, Mich. and and Riverside, Calif.) by the Manpower Demonstration Research
Corporation found that intensive education and training activities were only
about one-third as effective in moving recipients off welfare as what it called
"rapid job entry" strategies.
"The mothers were taught how to look for work and how to sell
themselves to employers," says Judith Gueron, MRDC's president. "The focus was
on how to prepare a resume, pursue job leads, handle interviews, and hold a job
once you got one . . . . The program was very mandatory, backed up with heavy
grant reductions for mothers who did not comply with job search requirements."
Don't time-limit benefits. The idea of setting a time limit on
welfare benefits, first popularized by Clinton, is part of every major bill now
before Congress. Clinton proposed a two-year limit followed by community service
jobs; the GOP bills simply impose a five-year limit on cash benefits (but not on
food stamps, Medicaid, and vouchers for housing and other necessities).
Unfortunately, a real time limit would likely evolve into a new --
and much more pernicious -- disability system. Some mothers cannot work, while
others simply don't want to. If the bureaucratic process of hearings and reviews
needed to distinguish between the two did not collapse of its own weight, it
would essentially end up labeling some mothers (disproportionately
African-American) as unfit for work but not for child-bearing.
Discourage dependency through work requirements and benefit
reductions. An administratively simpler -- and socially wiser -- approach would
be to encourage recipients to sort themselves out (as the Senate Finance
Committee bill proposes) by imposing a series of automatic work requirements and
benefit reductions to entice those mothers who can leave welfare to do so. The
rest would simply remain on the rolls.
"Workfare" programs offer the discipline of job attendance and the
boost to self-esteem that come with working. More important, they send a signal
to current recipients (and their younger sisters and friends) that they might as
well get a real job, where they would have a chance of advancement and higher
pay. After a set period of time, say six months, welfare benefits should be
automatically reduced for any mother who does not find a job or enter a work
program (and reduced again 12 months later). Although those who remain on
welfare should feel the pinch of benefit reductions, they should nevertheless be
protected from hunger, homelessness, and other harmful deprivations.
Include food stamps. Under current law, mothers actually get an
increase in their food stamp allotment when they are sanctioned for not
complying with a work mandate. That's because such benefits are based on the
recipient's income from all sources, so that when AFDC benefits go down, food
stamps go up.
Moreover, combining the two, as Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) has
flirted with, would make it easier to operate cost-effective work programs.
Workfare is expensive: Finding and supervising workfare sites, plus providing
child care, more than doubles basic welfare costs. To make the whole business
worthwhile, the mothers need to work at least 20 and preferably 30 hours a week.
A cost-effective program needs the additional food stamp funds to underwrite the
longer work day.
Allow states to modify Medicaid. Researchers have documented how
the fear of losing Medicaid coverage deters some mothers from leaving welfare
for work. Some states have begun to experiment with various Medicaid changes to
smooth (and thus encourage) the transition from welfare to work. A popular
approach is to reduce Medicaid benefits (making them more comparable to
middle-class coverage), using the savings to cover more of the working poor. But
no one really knows whether this or other ideas will work and, clearly,
different states have different needs -- which suggests giving them the
authority to modify their Medicaid programs (without a predetermined federal
Address illegitimacy. About one in three American babies are born
out of wedlock. Proposals to deny benefits to minors, to deny additional
benefits for additional children (the "family cap"), and to time-limit benefits
altogether are designed to undo the culture of illegitimacy that has taken hold
of so many low-income communities. But the lack of clear evidence of these
policies' effectiveness, and opposition in both parties, caused House
Republicans to water down such provisions. For example, underage mothers would
be denied cash benefits only. Noncash benefits -- including a voucher equal to
the entire value of AFDC benefits -- are specifically authorized.
Such efforts are likely to be more symbolic than real, but that
doesn't mean they are unimportant. Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), in fact, has
threatened a filibuster if such a provision isn't added to the Senate bill.
Voters (as well as recipients) need a signal that their political leaders are
trying to reduce illegitimacy. A welfare bill that seems indifferent to this
deeply troubling problem is unlikely to be a politically effective resolution of
the issue. Failure to address illegitimacy in this welfare bill means that
others will propose more coercive solutions, such as mandatory use of the
implanted contraceptive Norplant.
Don't ignore race. Ethnic and racial minorities make up a
disproportionate share of those on welfare. In 1993, almost 40 percent of all
welfare recipients were African-Americans, who made up only about 13 percent of
the general population; about 19 percent were Hispanic, who comprised only 10
percent of the population. Of perhaps even greater significance, 35 percent of
all black children are on welfare right now, as are 20 percent of Hispanic
children. That's in contrast to 6 percent of white children. A tough welfare
policy that falls most heavily on minority communities requires special caution
from the political process.
Cap the program, but let it grow. States now receive partial
reimbursement from the feds (an average of 55 percent) for their AFDC
expenditures. This kind of open-ended formula is possible only because current
law sharply limits allowable expenditures. Loosen the reins, and the states will
quickly learn how to charge the federal government for all sorts of extraneous
A block grant also needs a new formula for distributing funds
among the states. The current House and Senate bills finesse this issue by
simply freezing payments to individual states at their current levels. But some
rapidly growing Sun Belt states are crying foul, and their senators are pushing
for alternative formulas that would base future block-grant allocations on
population increases. Actually, all states should be concerned about the freeze,
because an economic downturn, or the continued growth in out-of-wedlock births,
could cost any state dearly in increased welfare costs. And that could create an
insidious incentive to cut benefits.
Fighting over how to slice the pie could unleash unpredictable
forces in both houses of Congress as states try to best each other in an
essentially zero-sum game. Better to let the block grant grow based on economic
and demographic changes (while guarding against the use of budgetary gimmicks to
raid the federal treasury). But fair is fair: If those same factors show that a
state's welfare spending should decline, perhaps its share of the block grant
should likewise drop.
Create a timetable for reform. Opponents of the welfare block
grant warn that states may use their new freedom to cut benefits sharply. While
the political fallout from media images of starving families would probably
deter most states from making such draconian cuts, the possibility is real
enough to trouble anyone concerned about disadvantaged children and their
families. Unfortunately, no one has come up with a legislative guarantee that
would force states to meet their obligations toward the poor without undermining
the essence of a block grant. But there is one thing to do: time-limit the
legislation that creates the block grant. Give the states three or five years
and, if the Congress does not act to extend the program, automatically revert
back to the current system. A "sunset" provision like this would at least
guarantee a national debate on the new regime.
Don't expect miracles. The welfare reform landscape is strewn with
overblown promises and unrealistic expectations, inevitably followed by
disappointing results and public cynicism. No welfare program, no matter how
splendid, can eradicate dependency. Too many other forces are at work. We should
be satisfied if what emerges from Congress is a bill that helps states send a
coherent yet compassionate message of personal responsibility to recipients.
That would be miracle enough.
Douglas Besharov is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise
Institute and a visiting professor at the University of Maryland School of
Public Affairs. His most recent book is "When Drug Addicts Have Children."
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