Welfare reform needsfinancial jump-start

President Clinton announced last week that the federal government will begin hiring welfare recipients as part of the nationwide initiative to meet the challenges of last year’s reform law. This latest development in the welfare reform saga is a case study in the trials and controversies popping up at federal, state and local levels. There is bipartisan agreement that new initiatives should get people off the dole and provide them with opportunities for economic advancement and independence. Much like the initial investment of paying for college helps students achieve a more secure professional future, to truly reform welfare will take money and energy. Anything less will merely lead to patchwork initiatives that hurt as many as they help.
Clinton’s proposal sounds good, but it is a drop in the bucket. As of October 1996, there were 11.8 million Americans on welfare. The federal government directly employs nearly 2 million people, and last year hired 58,000 new workers. Most of these positions, however, require highly skilled and educated people. Only about 10 percent are entry level or low-skill jobs. That boils down to more than 2,000 welfare recipients for every entry-level government job opening. A symbolic gesture at best.
Furthermore, even the White House acknowledges that most of these jobs pay only an average of $12,500 a year, barely enough for a single person to live on, much less a family. The president is trying to set an example for private employers, however, and hopes businesses will follow the government’s lead and hire welfare recipients of their own. Although this is a commendable goal, again, these positions are generally low-paying and will do little to promote the self-sufficiency model.
The most interesting reactions to the Welfare Reform Act are at the state and local levels. Many states are scrambling to find ways to meet federal requirements that mandate moving a certain percentage of welfare recipients into the job market. These states are also discovering that to do this effectively and permanently often requires a large initial investment in job training, child care and even temporary benefits extensions — in other words, it will cost them more money in the short term. For example, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that Ohio will pay $150 million more a year for welfare during the next six years. Like Ohio, other states need to realize that the key to long-term reform success is not just getting people any job, but getting them jobs that provide opportunities for economic self-advancement.
This can only be done if someone is willing to invest in caring for families and training new employees so they can move beyond minimum-wage, low-skilled jobs. Congress and Clinton have claimed that the private sector, charities and religious organizations must make this investment, but these groups have neither the money nor staff to provide the long-term support needed to help welfare recipients achieve self-sufficiency.
The welfare reform debate is good and necessary, but now all levels of government must determine how to achieve their goals. Promoting self-sufficiency and work needs to be more than political rhetoric. It is time to make an investment in welfare recipients that in the future will pay economic and social dividends for them and for the nation at large.