Education Key Element in Welfare Plans

By William Montague — April 08, 1987 5 min read

WASHINGTON--Remedial education--for both adults and young people--is emerging as a key component of the welfare-reform measures now being debated in the Congress.

A sweeping overhaul of the welfare system, recently introduced in the House and supported by the Democratic leadership, could mean additional federal funding for many local school districts.

The bill, sponsored by Representative Harold Ford, Democrat of Tennessee, would create a “National Education, Training, and Work’’ program--to be known as NETWORK--for welfare recipients.

Under the plan, the federal government would pay 75 percent of the costs for programs aimed at reducing adult illiteracy, teaching English as a second language, and helping high-school dropouts obtain their diplomas.


While Mr. Ford’s proposal is primarily focused on teaching welfare recipients the skills they need to find and hold jobs, it also would require that their children be allowed to participate in such education programs.

In addition, the bill would pay for state-run demonstration projects designed to encourage teen-agers from welfare families to stay in school, and would increase the federal child-care subsidy for welfare mothers enrolled in the NETWORK program.

“I cannot morally defend the current federal welfare policies that keep children living in an intolerable level of poverty,’' Mr. Ford, chairman of the House subcommittee on public assistance, said in introducing his bill.

Mr. Ford, long a crusader for more generous welfare benefits and services, said the measure, which he characterized as “pro-family,’' would add about $5 billion over the next three years to the cost of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the largest of the federal welfare programs.

Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, strongly endorsed Mr. Ford’s emphasis on education.

“Parents who in the past have had few employment prospects available to them because of severe educational deficits will be provided the opportunity to receive the remedial help and training they need,’' she said at hearings last week before Mr. Ford’s subcommittee.

Ms. Edelman, along with several other child-welfare advocates, called for even larger increases in benefits, especially in the child-care subsidy, than those contained in the Ford bill.

But noting the pressures to reduce the federal deficit, Mr. Ford warned that reform advocates in the Congress will need to make “some tough choices’’ in order to devise a bill acceptable to the Reagan Administration.

President Reagan has asked the Congress to consider his own welfare plan, which would give states considerable flexibility to use existing federal funds for short-term demonstration projects. The Administration has also proposed a more modest support program for welfare clients, known as Greater Opportunities Through Work, or GROW.

Unlike Mr. Ford’s NETWORK, the GROW plan emphasizes mandatory work requirements for welfare recipients. Such “workfare’’ proposals, while long supported by the President, are an anathema to many liberals.

In the Senate, meanwhile, Daniel P. Moynihan, Democrat of New York, is drafting his own welfare-reform plan. According to a spokesman, Mr. Moynihan, a recognized expert on anti-poverty programs, is expected to introduce his bill within the next few weeks.

‘Investment’ Strategy

In many respects, the Ford proposal closely resembles the welfare-reform suggestions put forward in February by the National Governors’ Association. Like Mr. Ford, the governors advocate an “investment’’ strategy with a strong child-assistance component.

While the Reagan Administration contends that more experimentation is needed before embarking on a sweeping reform program, the governors, led by the N.G.A.'s chairman, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, have made it clear that they think the time is ripe for a major federal welfare initiative.

Mr. Ford and other Congressional liberals have carried those sentiments one step further, devising a job-training and education program that is about twice as expensive as the N.G.A. plan.

Part of the higher pricetag stems from Mr. Ford’s willingness to quickly phase in a standardized national benefit level for welfare recipients, while providing federal incentive money for states to raise those benefits across the board.

Under Mr. Ford’s bill, the minimum welfare payment in any state would have to equal at least 15 percent of that state’s average income.

The governors have endorsed both of those ideas, at least in theory, but Mr. Clinton has said repeatedly that any move to standardize or increase benefits must first be paid for with the savings achieved by moving welfare clients off of the public rolls.

The Reagan Administration, on the other hand, has said it will oppose any move to define a minimum national benefit--now or in the future.

Although earlier this year President Reagan had appeared to embrace the governors’ call for a national education-and-training program, Administration officials are taking a dim view of Mr. Ford’s proposal, which they say would greatly increase federal costs.

The Office of Management and Budget, which advises the President on such subjects, has estimated that Mr. Ford’s plan would cost nearly $15 billion over its first five years.

Administration officials also contend that Mr. Ford’s NETWORK plan relies too heavily on voluntary programs, and could actually persuade the working poor to go on welfare to qualify for the program’s benefits.

“It seems clear that this multi-billion-dollar bill actually would do more to increase welfare dependency than to get people off welfare,’' said James C. Miller, director of the O.M.B., when he testified last week before Mr. Ford’s subcommittee.

Mr. Miller said the Administration is particularly opposed to the idea of using federal matching funds to subsidize basic-education programs for welfare clients offered through local school districts.

“Basic education is primarily the responsibility of state and local governments,’' Mr. Miller said. “The potential for cost shifting to the federal government--with no benefit to the A.F.D.C. population--would be enormous if basic education were funded.’'

Mr. Miller also spoke out against the child-care provision in the Ford proposal. The bill would provide as much as $200 a month for child-care expenses to any mother enrolled in the NETWORK program, and would continue those benefits at reduced levels for an additional year after she began work.

Mr. Miller, on the other hand, contended that most welfare mothers would prefer to have relatives or friends, rather than paid providers, care for their children.

This assertion drew a heated response from Ms. Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund. Noting the hazards posed by many small, informal day-care arrangements, she castigated Mr. Miller for suggesting that welfare mothers accept services “that he wouldn’t dare to tolerate for his own children.’'

In an interview, Mr. Ford acknowledged that, in its current form, his bill is likely to be unacceptable to the Administration, as well as to House Republicans and conservatives in his own party. He expressed optimism, however, that a bipartisan compromise could be negotiated.

A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 1987 edition of Education Week as Education Key Element in Welfare Plans