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Welfare Panel Leaves Open Education Questions

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Washington

A welfare-reform task force that submitted recommendations to President Clinton last month left unanswered questions about how much education the eventual Clinton plan will offer to steer welfare clients toward self-sufficiency.

The 32-member panel's recommendations, as outlined in discussion drafts and by Administration officials, would transform the "culture of welfare'' into a transitional program limiting welfare payments for those able to work to two years, followed by mandatory work or community service.

It also proposes incentives to "make work pay,'' expanded child-care aid, and measures to curb teenage pregnancy, promote parental responsibility, and toughen child-support enforcement.

The recommendations, which would cost an estimated $15 billion in the first five years, are being reviewed by Mr. Clinton, who is expected to submit a welfare-reform bill later this spring.

The panel favors expanding the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills, or JOBS, program, which was launched to provide education, training, and job-placement services under the 1988 Family Support Act, the last major welfare-reform law.

While the plan would increase JOBS funding and seek enhancements like better case management and improved coordination between administrators of JOBS and the Job Training Partnership Act, the panel does not envision "significant changes'' in the existing program, an Administration official said last week.

As under current law, recipients and social-service workers would design an employability plan to plot education, training, and job strategies.

But observers say the task force's stipulation that "every aspect of the program would emphasize paid work''--and the two-year time limit--could encourage JOBS programs to accent job-search activities and downplay education.

Education Extensions

And it is unclear to what extent recipients could get exemptions or extensions to complete a high school diploma or General Educational Development certificate or to pursue a college degree.

"By its very nature, a two-year limit precludes access to programs that last longer,'' said Mark Greenberg, a senior lawyer at the Center for Law and Social Policy.

The panel has proposed allowing states to grant extensions to a small percentage of their welfare caseloads. It would let states set the criteria, and did not answer the controversial question of whether people should receive full welfare benefits while pursuing four-year college degrees.

One compromise under discussion would allow states to grant such extensions if they demonstrably lead to work and if the recipient works part time.

But an exemption system would force a welfare client "to make the decision about whether to begin a program without ever knowing whether she would be able to complete it,'' Mr. Greenberg noted.

The time limit might also prompt some to forgo education for fear of "using up months of assistance they might be able to use later,'' he said, with the result that "extended educational programs would more than likely be curtailed even if there is not a formal policy to discourage them.''

Child advocates argue that the federal government should do all it can to encourage people on public assistance to pursue education.

"To not allow them to get advanced education so they can position themselves to stay off welfare permanently is counterproductive,'' said David Liederman, the executive director of the Child Welfare League of America.

But there is an emerging consensus among Republicans and moderate Democrats--reflected in various bills pending in Congress--favoring a "work first'' approach.

Child advocates and liberal Democrats "think the kinder, gentler version of welfare reform is to give people a lot of education,'' said a House Republican aide.

But it makes more sense to get people into the labor force first, the aide said, than "to willy-nilly throw everybody into basic education ... when there is no evidence that it is effective.''

Research Message Mixed

Will Marshall, the executive director of the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank whose work the panel has tapped, said he "does not see in their draft the mechanisms'' needed to stress work.

"Simply expanding the JOBS program isn't sufficient,'' said Mr. Marshall, who along with many moderate House Democrats favors expanded job-placement programs involving public and private groups and businesses.

One problem is a lack of data on which approaches work best.

"People are drawing any number of conclusions'' about JOBS, said Mr. Greenberg, "because the federal government has never collected or recorded basic information about program outcomes.''

Job-search proponents often cite a preliminary study of California's Greater Avenues for Independence, or GAIN, program conducted by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, which showed gains in earnings and welfare savings in five of six counties studied. The most striking results were in Riverside, whose program had the strongest job-search emphasis.

Jim Riccio, a senior research associate for the M.D.R.C., acknowledged that Riverside's strong management and emphasis on integrating job development into all activities set it apart from similar efforts.

Some also say the Riverside data have been mischaracterized, because substantial numbers of participants did receive education and training, and also because many participants still remained unemployed and in poverty.

Others point out that preliminary results from a more job-focused program in Florida were more modest, and that an education-centered model in Baltimore spurred significant earnings gains--albeit less welfare savings--over five years.

But the research suggests that "even a program that emphasizes education and training may do well to have incorporated in it strong linkages with the labor market,'' Mr. Riccio said.

Adult Education Woes

Others argue that adult education should also be revamped to focus on employability skills.

The preliminary evaluation of GAIN showed that the most literate recipients were more likely to get G.E.D. diplomas--but that the program did not increase literacy skills in five of the six counties. The National Evaluation of Adult Education also shows that many participants do not stay in programs long enough to benefit.

These data offer "troubling'' evidence, said Julie Strawn, a senior policy analyst with the National Governors' Association, that "existing adult-education programs aren't very effective.''

Because the draft plan envisions phasing in new work requirements for younger recipients first, she added, the issue of education "becomes much more pressing.''

The panel has urged more emphasis on insuring that teenage parents complete school, as well as more services for them, and has floated the idea of a pregnancy-prevention program based in schools.

It has also proposed giving states more leeway to provide cash sanctions and incentives to spur school attendance and re-entry, as in Ohio's Learning, Earning, and Parenting program.

The panel's plan, which may also require school attendance for more welfare mothers than JOBS does, could increase the demand for school-based child care.

"The complaint that administrators regularly make--that they are asked to do everything including education--will be demonstrated in this welfare plan,'' said Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.

Child advocates, meanwhile, fear the plan will be financed by cuts in other children's programs.

On the other hand, some conservatives, claiming the plan does not go far enough to stem illegitimate births, have proposed an extreme scenario: Just end welfare.

Staff Writer Drew Lindsay also contributed to this report.

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