Who Will Fund, Train, And Ensure Results?
Washington--Powerful social and political forces have converged to make welfare reform one of the top Congressional priorities in this Presidential election year.
But those same forces, some critics here are saying, may doom the final legislation to a status far short of the watershed many had hoped for.
Like the education-reform movement, the drive to overhaul the welfare system springs from a broad public consensus that something is wrong. Its momentum has, like education's, been fueled by the rising electoral importance of so-called "family issues."
But it, too, may be a reform movement more dependent on state actions than on the federal government.
Understanding the potential impact of the welfare proposals now before the Congress may depend less, in fact, on an examination of what they contain--a heavy emphasis on education and job training--than on what they do not: adequate funding, research on effective programs, and detailed prescriptions for the states.
Both "the family security act," a bill sponsored by New York's Senator Daniel P. Moynihan that is moving toward final consideration in the Senate Finance Committee, and its House counterpart, approved in December, call for bold, expansive new programs designed to move the poor off welfare rolls and onto payrolls.
But both, say critics, lack the money and specifics to back up their mandates.
"If the 100th Congress passes something like the family security act as introduced, there will be a strong tendency to assure ourselves that, yes, we have 'reformed' welfare," Stephen B. Heintz, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Income Maintenance, told the Senate Finance Committee last fall. "But we will not have done so."
Economics of Poverty
Part of the problem, say political observers here, is that although the consensus on welfare reform is broad, it is also thin.
With both political parties vying to champion family issues, few in the Congress could afford not to concur at least with the concept of welfare reform.
As Senator Moynihan noted in testimony last fall before the Finance Committee, "After public education, welfare affects more children than any other program."
"When children become the poorest members of our society, as they are now," he said, "it is plain that not enough is being done to support them."
The economics of poverty--its impact on individual lives as well as the nation at large--made the education-and-training component of the reform bills an essential. Both bills would require that states establish comprehensive programs to provide such services as high-school-equivalency programs, literacy and English-as-a-second-language instruction, skills training, work experience, and job-readiness and placement programs.
Both bills also call for support services such as child care and transitional medical benefits. And they target as their first-line clientele teen-age parents without a high-school diploma, long-term aid recipients, and families with a parent lacking a high-school degree.
The system envisioned would replace the current Aid for Families with Dependent Children program. It would require participation in education and job training by all welfare recipients, with some exemptions for the elderly, the ill, or mothers with children under the age of 3.
The Senate bill would allow states to encourage voluntary participation by mothers with children younger than 3 if child care can be guaranteed.
'It Will Cost Money'
But the mandatory-participation requirement, in light of the low level of federal funding proposed, has drawn sharp criticism from many state officials.
"If we are to give more than lip service to the idea that people can be educated and trained, then we must be willing to invest in that idea," said Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas at a Congressional hearing.
Linda A. Wilcox, Maine's director of welfare employment, noted that Massachusetts and California--two states that have implemented comprehensive welfare-reform pro8grams--spent well beyond the amounts being contemplated in the Congress.
California expects to spend more than $400 million annually on its work program, far more than the $297 million the federal government would spend nationwide in 1992, when the jobs component of the bill would be fully implemented.
"Welfare-to-work programs are cost-effective," Ms. Wilcox said, "but the potential benefits to families currently living in poverty, and to the public at large, will not be realized in many states until the federal government assumes its fair share of the responsibility for funding."
Said Judith M. Gueron, president of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, which has studied state welfare-reform initiatives since 1982: "Mandating that states do better won't make it happen. It will cost money to involve welfare recipients in employment-related activities, especially on an ongoing basis."
Vague Language Cited
Other critics gauge the lack of Congressional commitment in the vagueness of the bills' mandates.
Though states are required to establish education, job-training, and work programs, Mr. Heintz of Connecticut noted, the specific contours of such programs are always worded in terms of "may," as in, " ... programs may include remedial and basic education, postsecondary education where appropriate, job training, job counseling, etc."
The work component of the bills "does not set out even minimum standards to ensure a quality program," said Susan Rees, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs.
"Given the intensive training and remedial-education needs of most afdc recipients," she added, "we believe it is imperative that every state be required to have at least a minimal range of services available."
But others say the lack of sepcificity is purposeful, that it gives states more freedom to experiment with varied programs. Ms. Gueron, notel15ling the "remarkable developments" at the state level in recent years, argued that "it is critical that federal policy foster this by continuing to provide states with flexibility."
Some insist that the issue of standards cannot be separated from that of adequate funding. Requiring that all recipients participate, but failing to provide the money needed to finance job-related programs, they say, will ensure mediocrity.
"Participation mandates could force states to channel participants through essentially meaningless activities with no appreciable impact on their ability to become self-sufficient," said Mr. Heintz.
Echoes of Past Reforms
As Ms. Gueron pointed out, "1987 isn't the first time that Congress has expressed a preference for work over welfare." And it is not the first time that preference has threatened to derail reform efforts.
In 1971, the Congress experimented with requiring adult afdc recipients with school-age children to take jobs or risk benefits, she noted, but limited resources meant that "participation often became a paper process and the program lost credibility."
In 1981, the Congress again considered including a comprehensive work obligation in the welfare program, but, unsure of the proposal's feasibility, lawmakers included only language that would give states a chance to experiment.
Since then, "workfare" programs have proliferated in the states. And these have amply demonstrated, say program officials, the necessity of including education services in the welfare equation.
California's Greater Avenues for Independence program, or gain, operates in 26 California counties, providing training and employment assistance to nearly 35,000 welfare recipients. When the program is fully implemented in 1990, it will serve more than 200,000.
Carl B. Williams, the program's deputy director, told the Senate Finance Committee that 60 percent of the gain participants have needed education services before they could enter the labor market or receive vocational training.
But those concerned about the Congressional bills' impact say the money is not there to help states plan and operate such programs.
In an effort to retain bipartisan support in a deficit-cutting era, the Moynihan initiative would invest slightly more than $2 billion over a five-year period. Because the House bill includes increased benefit levels, its five-year pricetag is higher, an estimated $5 billion.
Both bills would fund the program on a matching basis with the states, a strategy that troubles some critics. For every dollar the states spend on training, the federal government would add 90 cents, up to the first $140 million nationally, and 60 cents for every additional dollar.
California, however, will spend $400 million for gain in this fiscal year alone, according to Mr. Williams. And the program is not yet fully implemented, serving only mothers with school-age children, he noted.
He expects that if the state is required to serve mothers with younger children, the projected caseload of 200,000 will double to 400,000.
Nationally, the the number of women served is expected to increase from the afdc's current level of 1.2 million to about 2 million, if mothers with children as young a three are required to participate.
Having mothers with children under 3 participate, as the Senate bill intends, would add another 1.3 million women--and additional, perhaps overwhelming, financial pressures for the states.
Since 1981, states have been able to draw federal funds on a dollar-for-dollar basis for job-search and workfare programs, but many have not done so, critics note. The matching-funds approach, they say, does not guarantee that states will finance programs--and it means that, inevitably, the states with the neediest populations will receive the least funding.
Optimism and Caution
But Senator Moynihan is optimistic. "We pretty much know what sort of education and training is needed," he said. "We know who needs the help. Best of all, we know that the people who need the help are increasingly in demand in the labor market."
Ms. Gueron, speaking of her six years of research on state welfare reforms, said, "We have learned that it costs money in the short run to save money in the longer run--a difficult lesson given current constraints, but one that should moderate our rhetoric."