Welfare

Welfare

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 17 1997 12:30 AM

Welfare

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       Please, don't lecture me about the need for public jobs, or about how welfare reform "is an effort that will cost money, Mickey." You must have missed the three places in my previous entry where I said I favor public jobs (e.g., "I favor a large program of public jobs"). I also agreed that "providing jobs and child care ... costs more than just sending welfare checks." You're debating some imagined right-wing opponent. Last year's welfare bill was a good thing, I think, precisely because it will lead to the necessary spending on public jobs and child care.
       Before I get to that, and the ample misinformation in your response, I think we should step back from the details and ask why we care about welfare reform in the first place. It's true that for some on the right the point of reform is simply to save money. But for most people--for President Clinton and, I suspect, for the voters who overwhelmingly supported the reform, and even for many congressional Republicans--the main goal isn't fiscal. It is to solve America's greatest social problem, which is what sociologist William Julius Wilson calls "ghetto poverty": the existence of isolated, depressed neighborhoods, mainly black and Hispanic, where intact, two-parent families and working fathers are practically nonexistent, where, for young women, having a child out of wedlock and going on welfare is, as they say, a way of life.
       Welfare may not have caused ghetto poverty, but there's little doubt that the old welfare system--in which an unmarried teenager could have a child, never take a job, and be entitled to 18 years of cash aid--helped sustain the problem, and certainly wasn't solving it. Change welfare, the reformist argument goes, and ghetto-poor neighborhoods will change too. Specifically, if you require work in exchange for aid, many who might otherwise wind up as single mothers on the dole will make better choices: finishing school, delaying motherhood, taking jobs, marrying potential breadwinners. Those who do need aid will be introduced to the demands and opportunities of the labor market. Even if the current generation has difficulty adjusting, the next generation will be better off. That's the hope, anyway--that welfare reform will, as President Clinton said, "break the culture of poverty and dependence" in the ghettos.
       If we're going to require work, nearly everyone agrees, we need to provide the single mothers on welfare with child care. There is no such consensus, however, that we need public jobs. I think we do, most obviously because there probably won't always be enough private jobs in all places at all times for the sort of unskilled people with "little work experience" who tend to become long-term welfare recipients. (I don't know where you get the idea that I think "there are enough jobs out there".)
       So how are we going to get the government to spend the necessary dollars for these public jobs? We could wait for a groundswell of liberal pro-spending sentiment to sweep American politics. That seems to be your strategy. Don't hold your breath. The alternative is to recognize that even conservatives aren't necessarily opposed to public jobs--what is "workfare," championed by Ronald Reagan, but a type of public job? Yet today's Republicans have to be convinced that such a costly, big-government project is necessary.
       Fine. The way to convince them is to pass something very much like the bill Clinton signed--a "bake-off," in effect, which lets each state design its own welfare reform, so we can find out which works best. Let conservative states try their ideas. Let liberal states try theirs, etc. Some governors will provide public jobs. Some will indeed assume that "there are enough [private] jobs out there." They will discover soon enough that there aren't, as welfare recipients fail to find private work within their allotted time limits. It will then become obvious, even to conservatives, that "workfare" jobs, at the least, are necessary if work is really going to be required--obvious to enough conservatives, anyway, to support the necessary spending.
       Yes, there are risks to this "let 50 reforms bloom" strategy. Though the law does not require it, some states could do harsh things--like enforcing "cold turkey" cutoffs, even when recipients can't find jobs. Governors may eventually have to lobby Washington for more money. Some states might try to slash benefits and chase the poor away. Were these risks worth the reward of finding out which reforms work? That's the judgment call Clinton had to make, knowing that if he vetoed the bill, it might be years before another was passed--though there would still be some experimentation under those state reforms that the Department of Health and Human Services approved.
       I think the rewards outweighed the risks. You don't. Unfortunately, in attempting to make your case in the Atlantic, you hype the risks while ignoring or downplaying recent good news that makes Clinton's decision look increasingly sensible. Your S

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entry continues this tradition:
       1) Those nasty time limits: I take it you have retreated from your Atlantic argument that the bill's much-publicized "five-year time limit" compels every state to cut people off after that period. It doesn't. States still might choose to engage in "a macho race to the bottom about the time limits." But so far, this isn't happening. You describe the time limits in Florida, Massachusetts, and Connecticut--and a proposed time limit in California--as if they were absolute cold-turkey cutoffs of aid. They aren't. Florida offers extensions beyond its four-year "lifetime" limit to those with "significant barriers to employment, combined with a need for additional time." That should cover practically anyone. Massachusetts extends its limit, on a case-by-case basis, if (among other factors) no "appropriate job opportunities exist locally." Connecticut's provisions for extension are so generous that even HHS approved the plan. And the time limit proposed by California Governor Pete Wilson wasn't a cutoff at all: Recipients would simply move to another program, where they would get about two-thirds of their assistance check in the form of "in-kind" aid, such as payments for rent and utilities. Anyway, Wilson's plan was just killed by the state legislature.
       The only real cold-turkey cutoff, of those you list, appears to be the one imposed by the Governor of New Mexico. It's a three- (not two-) year limit, and the state's Democratic legislature is fighting it. Even where cold-turkey limits are enacted, politicians can be expected to back off when recipients actually start to hit them. Nobody gets re-elected by putting large numbers of women and children onto the streets.
       2) The falling caseload: The welfare block grant is fixed at $16.4 billion. The caseload has fallen roughly 18 percent. Were welfare still an "entitlement," pegged to the caseload, the federal money would also have fallen 18 percent. Instead, it remains fixed at its record level--an increase, the editor of S

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points out to me, of not 18 but about 22 percent over what would have happened had Clinton vetoed the bill. This is not just "some" extra money. When was the last time liberals achieved a 22 percent increase in federal funding for welfare? Yes, if there is a recession, and the caseload soars, the numbers turn sour. But what would you rather have: a) a fifth more money now, in hand, with a chance that the bonus will increase if the caseload keeps dropping, and a chance to lobby Congress for more money if there is a recession; or b) a fifth less money now, with the loss increasing every day, but with an automatic increase should there be a recession in the next few years? In the current economy, I'll take what's behind Door A.
       I agree that the caseload drop doesn't mean the legislation is already a success. As you say, the "tough part" of trying to get the longer-term recipients into the work force lies ahead. I do claim that not only does the caseload drop free up lots of money to focus on the tougher cases, but it's also a good thing in itself. Your response to the latter point is, first, to cite the increase in demand at homeless shelters in Milwaukee. There has been such an increase. According to Joe Volk, chairman of the Milwaukee Shelter Task Force, it consists of about 26 more families in shelters now than this time last year. That's 26 families too many, but in the same year the Milwaukee welfare rolls fell by more than 7,700 households! The overwhelming majority of those leaving welfare, obviously, didn't wind up homeless. On balance, a success--so far.
       Your comparison of Wisconsin and Minnesota is very strange. After claiming that the caseload has dropped because of the economy, you argue that the Minnesota caseload hasn't dropped, and Wisconsin's has, because of differences in welfare-reform policies. Wasn't that my point? You say Wisconsin's "bureaucratic culture discourages people from applying." What's wrong with that? But you can't explain away Minnesota's higher caseload simply by its generous practice of keeping people on the rolls as they earn more, since that is an experimental policy that applies to only 10 percent of the state's caseload.
       I say, fine, let Minnesota try its mild version of reform, which still allows long-term welfare mothers to stay on the rolls without actually working. Let Wisconsin try its universal work requirement. Let's see, in a few years, which state has seen more of an improvement in ghetto poverty. That's the competition set in motion by the 1996 reform. You want to allow the experiments you like (Minnesota) and have HHS squash the ones that don't fit your precise preconceptions (Wisconsin).
       One more thing about these two states. You say you are for public jobs, yet you tout the Minnesota plan, which has virtually no public jobs, and inexplicably disdain the Wisconsin plan, which (in order to enforce work) would create tens of thousands of public jobs! You complain Wisconsin doesn't offer the Earned Income Tax Credit to the people in those jobs. That's true. Wisconsin wants to reserve the tax credit as an incentive for those who get private employment. It's a principle recognized by Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the WPA, and William Julius Wilson, in his most recent book, When Work Disappears: Public jobs should pay a bit less than private jobs, to encourage movement into the private sector. Indeed, Clinton's defunct 1994 welfare plan, which you supported (and which, in the Atlantic, you praise as "responsible") also denied the EITC to those in public-service positions. So why is this now your big beef?
       I can't help but suspect what conservatives (and voters) have always suspected of paleoliberal welfare experts who call for public jobs: You want the jobs, but in the crunch you don't actually want to require anybody on welfare to take them. Since it isn't productive to attribute hidden motives to one's opponent, I'll simply ask you: If the government did decide to provide minimum-wage jobs for everyone, with free child care and free health care--OK, and the EITC!--and a poor, single mother showed up and said "I don't want your job. I don't want to work. I want my welfare," would you deny her the aid? Or would you send her a check anyway?

Mickey Kausis a contributing editor at the New Republic and author of The End of Equality.Peter Edelmanis a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. He wrote "The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done" in the March 1997 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. He served as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation for the Department of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration.