WHEN PRESIDENT Bill Clinton pledged to "end welfare as we know
it," he may have promised far more than anyone could deliver.
That's what a variety of experts told members of the
president's working group on welfare reform at a day-long hearing
Eleanor Holmes Norton, a congressional delegate for the
District of Columbia, warned that "the slogan to `end welfare as we
know it' is likely to remain but a slogan."
Norton said that the president's reforms were fundamentally
flawed. They "completely underestimate the straight-out prejudice
against people on welfare," which she called the "functional
equivalent of racial prejudice, circa 1920."
Besides that, "the success of welfare reform is tied to success
in other vital areas," such as reducing unemployment and
underemployment. "The only thing the administration is doing in
tandem with welfare reform is health-care reform," said Norton.
Throughout the day, David Ellwood, the assistant secretary for
planning and evaluation in the Department of Health and Human
Services and a leader of the task force, acknowledged the
difficulty of reforming the system but warned of the danger of
being paralyzed by criticism.
"I fear we'll do nothing because it's so hard." The issue, he
said, must be approached realistically. "Where do we go -
plausibly?" he asked.
The president's welfare reform rests on four pillars:
Making work pay.
A two-year time limit on receiving benefits.
Education and training so people can leave welfare.
Drastically improved enforcement of child-support orders.
By far the most controversial is the two-year limit on welfare
benefits. As Clinton has put it, "We will empower people on welfare
with the education, training and child care they need for up to two
years so they can break the cycle of dependency. After that, those
who can work will have to go to work, either by taking a job in the
private sector or through community service."
While "most people are on welfare for only two years," said
Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women,
she argued against "an arbitrary time limit" because it "conjures
up the `welfare queen' stereotypes of poor women as stupid,
shiftless, bad mothers who don't want to work."
Katherine McFate of the Joint Center for Economic and Political
Studies, noted that "time limits fall more heavily on blacks" - who
tend to average eight years of public assistance - and might,
therefore, appear to be more punitive than helpful.
For many of those testifying, though, the biggest concerns with
the two-year limit were what McFate called the "turbulence of the
low-wage labor market" and the simple lack of jobs. "There are not
enough jobs out there," said Norton. "In a job-poor economy, where
even people with skills are having a hard time," what's going to
happen to people with "such large deficits in education and skills"?
Lee Saunders of the American Federation of State, County and
Municipal Employees was afraid that welfare recipients, unable to
find work in the private sector, would be shunted into workfare
jobs in the public sector - and displace regular public-sector jobs.
"Public-sector jobs most likely to be converted into unpaid
workfare positions are low-wage, low-skill jobs, such as day-care
aides, school-crossing guards, cafeteria workers, hospital
orderlies, bus drivers, clerks and janitors. These jobs are
precisely the ones currently held by low-skilled workers, with high
concentrations of minorities and women."
For time limits to succeed, "a certain amount of flexibility
and some kind of safety net" have to be built in, said Robert
Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, who
testified Thursday, in a telephone interview. …