Welfare Reform: Does It Work?

Article excerpt

Welfare once shackled families to a cycle of poverty and dependency. Now, state initiatives and national reforms are helping are needy families land jobs instead of handouts.

Cash-assistance caseloads have plunged roughly 40 percent across the country since 1994, and spirits are soaring among those who believe America's welfare programs at last are giving the nation's needy a hand up instead of just a handout. "The look of welfare has changed," says Michael Kharfen, speaking for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS. "Now welfare offices look more like employment centers."

Caseworkers used to be concerned with determining the size of the government check for which an aid applicant could qualify. Now, Kharfen says, they are "trying to get people into work -- teaching them how to interview, how to dress, how to fill out application forms, requiring them to go out and do a certain number of job interviews a day."

The revised system worked for Cassandra Tucker. A year ago this 27-year-old had just given birth to her sixth child and was out of work. Like all Wisconsin residents, she knew that applying for public assistance meant applying for a job. Welfare had passed away and been reincarnated as Wisconsin Works, or W2, the most radical welfare-to-work program in the nation.

A YWCA-based agency had been chosen to manage the local work program. Tucker polished her workplace skills and habits through YW Works. Before long, Genevieve Kukla, president of an inner-city Milwaukee manufacturing and construction company called the agency looking for workers. Tucker interviewed and became one of 925 people in 1998 who landed jobs instead of welfare checks through YW Works.

To her evident amazement, last month found Tucker testifying in welfare-reform hearings before the House Committee on Government Reform alongside her boss, Kukla, and the executive director of the YWCA Women Enterprise Center, Julia Taylor. "Some aspects of W2 are positive, some negative. But it's the people you meet along the way that determine the positive or negative," Tucker told House leaders. Motioning toward her boss she added, "Ms. Kukla has been very supportive."

These three women say a lot about the system that is replacing welfare handouts throughout the nation: a solidly planned state program managed at the local level, working with employers and community supporters to tap the resources of people who have lost -- or never found -- their way. "The environment is characterized by a new culture in which innovation and reform are rewarded, as is individual achievement and effort," says Taylor.

Where welfare reform is working best in the nation it is because of what its critics call a "paternalistic policy." This involves setting reasonable and enforceable expectations that encourage responsible behavior. (W2 benefits ultimately are not contingent upon need but upon the number of hours actually worked.) It also requires giving a helping hand up from the miseries of inadequate training, transportation, child care and health services. (Wisconsin's social benefits for the needy are second to none. The latest hype surrounds building state-of-the-art child-development centers for at-risk children, replete with speakers to pipe in foreign languages and classical music.)

Hiring people out of welfare is becoming normal business practice in this time of nearly full employment. Studies are showing a high level of retention once workers settle into jobs. Tucker is one of three W2 workers Kukla has on her small staff -- she says she will tram anyone willing to take on all the responsibility they can handle. It's both a labor of love and a business venture for her. "Someone has to care," says Kukla, affectionately remembering two times that Tucker walked out on the job, only to call back and apologize. "You have to give them responsibility and tell them, `Look I need you and I am depending on you,'" says Kukla. …