Jewish World Review Oct. 23. 11, 2003 / 27 Tishrei, 5764

Jane R. Eisner

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Welfare recipients need more than jobs to stay employed | (KRT) Welfare reform has come a long way in a short time. Where once prophets of doom predicted widespread suffering, the experience in Philadelphia and other big cities is proving otherwise.

Caseloads are down, employment is up, household incomes have increased and conditions in poor neighborhoods generally have improved since the new policies were instituted here in 1997. This is all confirmed in a report issued Friday by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, a nonpartisan social-policy research organization.

Once the big challenge was to make work a requirement. No longer. The 1996 federal welfare-reform law took care of that. Now the challenge is to make work possible.

The MDRC report shows that, for many welfare recipients, finding steady, sustainable work remains very difficult. Barriers to getting and keeping a job loom as large and unmovable as the mountains of paperwork that once consumed the welfare bureaucracy.

The report reminds us how hard it can be for poor people with children to get jobs and keep them. Three-quarters of the women did not have a driver's license or access to a car. More than half had a child with special needs or behavior problems, or had caretaking responsibility for a sick or frail person. Nearly one-third were at risk for clinical depression. Many had been homeless in the last year. And for the vast majority, the fathers of their children were not in the picture.

So the question is: What do we do now? Where do we put future welfare money?

States - which have been the real cradles of innovation here - already have the answer: less cash assistance, more services to help people get work and stay working. A report in last week's New York Times showed that the proportion of welfare money spent on cash assistance declined from 77 percent in 1997 to 44 percent in 2002, while the proportion allotted to child care, education, training and other services shot up from 23 percent to 56 percent.

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So what services should we be funding? Here are a few:

Child care. Families receiving child-care subsidies are more likely to work and stay off welfare than families not receiving this help, says a study by the Center for Law and Social Policy. The trouble is, only about one in seven children eligible for child-care assistance under federal rules receives it.

Housing and transportation. Families who get housing assistance are also more likely to keep their jobs, says a 2002 paper from the Brookings Institution. Another Brookings study, released this July, argues that - rather than relying only on public transit - welfare-to-work programs ought to make it easier for recipients to have a car. The jobs they are offered are often more than a bus ride away.

Training for decent work. Although 87 percent of former recipients surveyed by MDRC had worked for pay since the reforms kicked in, a majority worked intermittently in a series of short-term, low-wage jobs with earnings that fluctuated widely. The need is jobs worth keeping, not make-work.

Strengthening families. The controversy over the Bush administration's plan to encourage marriage among the poor has overshadowed a heartening trend: While welfare caseloads dropped, the number of poor children raised by a married couple rose. That trend has to be encouraged, through couples counseling, teen pregnancy prevention, and efforts to improve the job outlook for men.

"The evidence is growing that these kinds of support help people keep their jobs and improve their lives," said Margy Waller, co-author of both Brookings reports. "There's no evidence that increasing the required work hours leads to improved outcomes."

Unfortunately, increasing work hours is exactly what the Bush administration wants to do, proposing that the requirement move from 30 to 40 hours a week. The U.S. House has concurred; the Senate Finance Committee recently agreed to 34 hours.

"The real tragedy could be that these new work requirements may suck up all the energy and dollars into make-work programs that are not very productive," said Feather Houstoun, Pennsylvania's welfare secretary in the Ridge and Schweiker administrations.

Using welfare money to aid victims of domestic violence or pay for onetime grants for car repairs may seem off-point. But it is precisely on point, if the aim is to make work possible for those who, for whatever reasons, need temporary assistance because their lives lack the guarantees most of us take for granted. The paradigm has shifted. Don't mess with it now.

Jane R. Eisner is a columnist for Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.

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