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States Move To Link Welfare Benefits to Personal Behavior

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Seeking to stem rising welfare rolls, cut spending, and champion "mainstream values," several states have plunged into a highly controversial, yet largely untested, area of welfare reform: linking benefits to personal behavior.

In its most basic form, the notion was embedded in the landmark 1988 federal welfare-reform law, the Family Support Act, which required recipients to pursue education, job training, or employment in exchange for their welfare benefits.

But the recent spate of state proposals-most of which will require legislative approval or federal waivers in order to be implemented-extends beyond the world of work.

This new generation of proposals is seeking to hold sway over such behaviors as childbearing, marriage, school attendance, living arrangements, and health care.

In recent months, several states have either proposed or begun debating such welfare reforms, and New Jersey last month became the first state to enact a measure denying welfare mothers additional benefits if they have additional children. (See Education Week, Jan. 22, 1992.)

Proponents of such efforts, who span the political spectrum, say their aim, in addition to seeking to break the cycle of welfare dependency, is to reinforce such values as school, work, marriage, and responsible childbearing and child support.

"We've developed a system that accurately reflects the values and morals we have in mainstream America and placed them in a system that deals with poor people," said Wayne R. Bryant, the Democratic Assemblyman who sponsored New Jersey's sweeping welfare-reform bill.

The law establishes stricter work and education standards, provides new funds for job training and child care, and eliminates disincentives for welfare mothers to marry or couples to stay together. It also allows them to work and earn up to half their monthly grant without losing their benefits.

The most controversial provision, however, eliminates a $64-a-month increase in benefits when a welfare mother gives birth to an additional child.

Opponents of such efforts--who include a diverse mix of children's advocates, civil libertarians, women's activists, and anti-abortion groups-describe them as misplaced attempts at "social engineering."

Such proposals, these critics say, raise the specter of already' struggling families forced into homelessness, pregnant women compelled to choose abortions, or "innocent children" being mired deeper in poverty and reared at greater risk.

"I can understand the motivation for all of this," said Edward F. Ziglet, the Sterling Professor of Psychology at Yale University and the director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy. "But if it eventuates in a poorer quality of life for children and less optimal development, you're going to get some short term benefits and long-term serious costs."

Citing data that they say debunk the welfare stereotypes on which such proposals rest, critics predict that the new "carrot and stick" reforms are not only unlikely to influence behavior, but that they will not save much money either.

"You will be reducing the income available to support poor children without making their parents any more job-ready or able to support a family than they are now," argued Nancy Ebb, a senior staff lawyer for the Children's Defense Fund.

While conceding that there is virtually no empirical evidence to support such proposals, many analysts argue that they are still worth testing.

"The 'new paternalism' is not pleasant policy, but it is preferable to the alternative, which is continued destructiveness in poor communities," Lawrence M. Mead, an associate professor of politics at New York University, testified before the Senate Finance Committee this month. "My counsel is to proceed, and watch closely."

'National Movement'

According to the American Public Welfare Association, the number of families receiving benefits under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program has risen steadily--and set new records--in each of the past 26 months. On average, the group says, nearly 2,000 children are added to the welfare rolls each day.

Mr. Mead and others see proposals such as New Jersey's as part of a "national movement" to break the cycle of dependency by altering behaviors deemed counterproductive.

Wisconsin broke new ground in 1988 with Learnfare, a program that reduces the welfare checks of recipients whose teenagers are chronically truant. (See related story, page 1 .)

Ohio followed suit in 1989 with the Learning, Earning, and Parenting program, which includes rewards and penalties designed to encourage school re-entry and attendance for teenage parents who have dropped out.

Initiatives seeking federal approval and legislative action in Wisconsin and others expected to be on the November ballot in California would provide financial incentives for welfare recipients to marry, limit or cut additional benefits for those who have more children while on welfare, and require teenage mothers to live at home.

Measures incorporating some of those ideas have also been proposed in Maine, Vermont, Iowa, Connecticut, and Virginia.

Under a Maryland proposal pending federal approval, welfare families would face substantial cuts in benefits unless they could show that they were getting preventive health care, keeping their children in school, and paying their rent. ('See Education Week, Dee. 11, 1991 .)

In his State of the Union Message last month, President Bush applauded state reforms that stress welfare clients' "responsibility" to pursue work or education, "get their lives in order... hold their families together and refrain from having children out of wedlock." He also pledged to make "easier and quicker" the process for having federal rules waived in order to pursue such reforms.

Research Base Lacking

The momentum of such proposals has sparked concern among critics. "At a point where a number of politicians are racing to come up with proposals that are more punitive than those pending elsewhere, it is very troubling to see the Administration say go faster," said Mark Greenberg, a senior staff lawyer for the Center for Law and Social Policy.

Unlike previous welfare reforms highlighting work incentives and employment training, he and others maintain, the new proposals are not grounded in research.

"In the last wave of welfare reform, there was at least a wave of state based demonstrations that preceded it and helped make a case for it," said Frank Farrow, the director of children's-services policy for the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

While Mr. Mead supports moving ahead cautiously, he conceded that "we have every reason to believe that recipients will resist changes in their personal behavior."

"The most likely effect is no effect at all," he said.

Defending his welfare plan-which would combine behavior-related reforms with a 25 percent cut in A.F.D.C. benefits--Gov. Pete Wilson of California said the state "has to do something about the kind of auto-pilot spending [that threatens to] prevent us from making the kind of investment in education and in preventive programs for children that we think are essential."

But some question the premises upon which such proposals rest.

Contrary to the image of out-of-control welfare spending, noted Robert Greenstein, the executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the median A.F.D.C. benefit, adjusted for inflation, fell by 42 percent between 1970 and 1991.

In real terms, he added, the combination of A.F.D.C. and food-stamp benefits has the same value as in 1960, before the food-stamp program was created. He also noted that, on average, A.F.D.C. costs make up only 3.5 percent of state budgets.

Judith M. Gueron, the president of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, which specializes in welfare research, also noted that the average welfare family has two children, and that 40 percent have one.

"The picture of a system which encourages families to have additional children for additional benefits just doesn't conform to the facts," Mr. Greenberg of the Center for Law and Social Policy said.

He and others also say that most welfare parents recognize that the $50 to $100 a month they stand to gain in increased benefits would fall far short of supporting an additional child.

'Mythical Misdeeds?'

Instead of penalizing children "for the mythical misdeeds of their parents," Ms. Ebb of the Children's Defense Fund argued, resources would be better targeted at "constructive alternatives"--such as assured child support, a children's allowance like those used in European countries, and tax credits to help offset child-rearing costs.

Some of the recent proposals, Ms. Gueren said, "promote a view that welfare recipients are very different from anybody else--that they're not interested in getting health care, getting remarried, or having their kids go to school."

At the same time, she said, such plans do little to address the social and economic barriers impeding those on welfare.

Some also see the proposals as part of a more troubling trend to cut benefits.

While the New Jersey law would channel increased spending into job training, the California and Maryland reforms were offered as part of plans that included substantial A.F.D.C. CUts.

"Part of the question is whether some politicians are using very emotionally loaded proposals as a means to slip through others that have a much greater fiscal impact," Mr. Greenberg said.

"The new paternalism should not be an excuse for balancing state budgets on the backs of the poor," said Douglas J. Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

In 1991, Mr. Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted, 31 states froze and 9 states cut A.F.D.C. benefits, and 14 states cut "general assistance" programs for single, able-bodied adults.

The combination of proposed cuts and reforms in California, said Clare Pastore, a staff lawyer for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, poses "the most drastic threat to the subsistence of poor families in California's history" and will likely consign more families to homelessness and more children to foster care.

"People talk about how the welfare system doesn't work, but it has two purposes, one of which is to keep children from starving and sleeping in the streets," she said.

Anti-abortion activists view the debate from another vantage point.

"It is frankly unconscionable for a state that's willing to pay for abortion on demand... to say that, if a child is conceived in poverty, the state essentially will ignore that the child exists," said Janet Carroll, the legislative director of the California Pro Life Council.

While "it makes sense to condition welfare payments on appropriate behavior," Mr. Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute said, such proposals must be "rooted in public support" and be "easy and fair" to monitor.

'Legitimate Anger'

Despite such cautions, the idea behind behavior-linked benefits "plays well politically and gives an attractive message," Mr. Farrow of the Center for the Study of Social Policy said.

In addition to helping to "divert attention" from deeper economic woes, Mr. Greenberg said, the movement reflects "an enormous amount of legitimate anger that the welfare system doesn't do enough to help people enter employment."

"It's all part of an embittered lower-middle class fighting for a shrinking piece of the pie," Ms. Gueron of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation said.

Most states are "conscientiously trying to implement the Family Support Act," Mr. Greenberg said.

But as a result of fiscal constraints, Mr. Greenstein of the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities noted, states drew down less than half of the federal matching funds available for the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills program in fiscal 1991.

Backers of the new initiatives also say bolder steps are needed to emphasize family responsibility.

"It's time we stopped selling the poor short," Gov. James J. Florio of New Jersey said. "What they don't need is a cradle-to-grave system that treats them like children and gives them absolutely no credit for being able to make decisions on the same rational basis as everyone else."

"For the first time in the history of this country, we have sent a proper message that family is important, even when it comes to poor people," Mr. Bryant, the sponsor of New Jersey's welfare package, added.

In addition to removing disincentives to work and marry, he said, the proposal sends the message that, "in America, we do not automatically add income as [we] add additional family."

If you abide by the argument that "anytime you do away with income you are injuring children," he added, "it must also apply to a tax system that unfairly taxes or makes sure folks in certain income levels get taxed less."

Even in the absence of welfare studies showing financial rewards and penalties can alter behavior, he said, "We have a moodel: It's a model called American capitalism."

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