A Real Piece of Work: Welfare Reform Is One Year Old and a Huge Success So Far. but Will Business Do Its Part?

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, August 25, 1997 | Go to article overview

A Real Piece of Work: Welfare Reform Is One Year Old and a Huge Success So Far. but Will Business Do Its Part?


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


Welfare reform is one year old and a huge success so far. But will business do its part?

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A year makes. Last summer, conservatives were arguing that an increase ill the minimum wage would absolutely, positively mean fewer jobs. Liberals were arguing that the welfare bill was deeply immoral and would throw a million or more children into poverty. Don't hold your breath waiting for confession of error. But it's worth noting that the success of welfare-reform legislation, signed by President Clinton one year ago this week, blows the doors off even the most optimistic predictions. The caseload is on a path toward dropping by nearly 2 million since the bill was signed--bringing the total reduction since 1998 to nearly 4 million women and children (and a few men), or more than a quarter of all welfare recipients. When you hear the Clintonites bragging, it's more than just spin.

The strong economy obviously helps, but it's not a complete explanation. In the 60-year history of welfare, through many fat economic times, the largest previous caseload drop was 250,000 in a single year. And it's not as if folks are getting routinely booted off the rolls. Only Florida and Wisconsin are doing that now. In other states, the time limits haven't kicked in yet. So what accounts for the change? No one knows for sure. Of course, the threat of a cutoff has a way of concentrating the mind. The most important change, as Clinton domestic-policy chief Bruce Reed puts it, is in expectations. These days, when poor mothers go into state agencies to apply for welfare, they find themselves facing bureaucracies that are structured around work, not merely writing checks. Even the American Public Welfare Association, the advocacy group for case workers, is taking the word "welfare" out of its name.

All the good news is tempered by the knowledge that the hardest part lies ahead. Those who could get jobs on their own have, by now, largely done so. From here on, the government and the private sector will have to be especially innovative. The government's role probably won't be in actually providing jobs; "workfare" hasn't proven a good avenue into permanent work, and the Clinton administration (thanks to union pressure) is making it increasingly impractical with loads of federal rules.

Instead, the action is in government support for stepped-up private-sector efforts. A new Coopers & Lybrand survey of the fastest-growing small companies shows 60 percent of employers would be willing to hire welfare recipients (26 percent already have). Some employers may be responding to what Clinton in St. Louis last week called their "moral obligation" to help, a duty that applies especially to those who bellyached about the old system. But most managers aren't saints; they just need warm bodies for entry-level jobs. The only way companies will get them is if there is state-supported child care, transportation and help for employers with what might be called "the alarm-clock problem"--basic work skills.

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A Real Piece of Work: Welfare Reform Is One Year Old and a Huge Success So Far. but Will Business Do Its Part?
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