Even critics surprised by welfare reform

Philadelphia Inquirer, March 5, 2000
by David Boldt

                    It is now exactly a year since a fear-frozen populace watched the final seconds tick off before the
                    deadline that would finally change welfare as we'd known it.

                    Last March, when all Pennsylvanians who had been on welfare for two years faced a possible
                    cut-off of benefits, Mayor Edward G. Rendell predicted a "train wreck," conjuring a vision of
                    mangled steel and strewn bodies. And he was not alone in predicting calamity.

                    When welfare reform went through Congress in 1996, it was called "mean," "low-down" and
                    "beyond repair" by Democratic opponents. The Urban Institute predicted that a million children
                    would be thrown into poverty. Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children's Defense Fund, said
                    that if President Clinton signed the measure, it would "leave a moral stain on his presidency."

                    Hugh Price, president of the Urban League, said it amounted to a "declaration of war on poor

                    So what's happened? On the positive side, one can say that none of the direst predictions has come to
                    pass. There has been no surge in homelessness, crime or foster-child placements. The number of
                    people (and children) living in poverty has declined. No "race to the bottom" has occurred (in which
                    states tried to outdo one another in cutting welfare benefits). Most states, including Pennsylvania,
                    have actually increased benefits. The number of persons and families on welfare has been cut
                    roughly in half, and most of those who left welfare found work.

                    These achievements have surprised even welfare-reform advocates. "I don't think anyone expected
                    so many to quit welfare and get jobs as fast as they did," said Sherri Heller, who heads
                    Pennsylvania's welfare-to-work efforts.

                    On the other side of the ledger, a significant number of former welfare recipients are less well-off
                    now than they were. Both opponents and proponents of welfare reform agree that too many former
                    recipients are not getting the food stamps and medical benefits to which they are entitled.

                    Efforts to reduce the number of children born out of wedlock - one of the major declared goals of the
                    welfare-reform law - have had, at most, a tiny effect.

                    Studies of former welfare recipients show that many live hand-to-mouth existences full of anxiety
                    about basic things such as putting food on the table and paying the rent. On the other hand, a
                    small-scale telephone survey of ex-recipients by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare
                    indicates that ex-recipients were more worried about such matters back when they were on welfare.

                    Ernest Jones, head of the Philadelphia Workforce Development Corp., the city's major
                    welfare-to-work program, suggests that the most telling aspect of the current situation may be that
                    "nobody - and I mean nobody - wants to go back to the old system."

                    Instead, the concern on all sides has focused on how to prepare for crises that may lie ahead, chief
                    among them what will happen when the next economic downturn hits. It's a complicated question. No
                    one knows how much the current boom is responsible for the good results of welfare reform so far.
                    America has, after all, had major economic expansions in the past during which welfare rolls
                    increased. Previous efforts to get welfare recipients to work, moreover, had no significant effect. As
                    one Capitol Hill staff member put it, "We are in uncharted territory."

                    Nonetheless, there is rising confidence among many officials about the ability of welfare reform to
                    ride out the next economic storm. To begin with, there's a lot of money available. Because federal
                    welfare funding has continued at a constant level despite the reduction in the number of recipients,
                    the amount available for each family on welfare has risen from about $3,500 a year before welfare
                    reform to more than $8,000 now.

                    Heller says that because of the "surprise success" in getting welfare recipients into jobs,
                    Pennsylvania has been able to shift funds from the basic task of helping people find work and put
                    more into training programs to help people keep their jobs and advance. The wages of former
                    welfare recipients who have been continuously employed since leaving welfare - about 37 percent
                    of the total - have shown a steady increase of 5 to 6 percent every three months.

                    In addition, Heller says, "the legislature has been much more amenable to providing assistance for
                    low-income people who are working than it was for people on welfare." This is reflected in the fact
                    that her department expects to have $442 million next year to help low-income Pennsylvanians,
                    including former welfare recipients, get child care services; before welfare changes, the aid was
                    $210 million. State expenditures for transportation and training already have more than doubled.

                    Heller says another auxiliary benefit of the welfare changes has been to greatly reduce "the anger
                    and resentment" of the working poor, who often felt they were passed over in favor of welfare

                    One of the main reasons there was no "train wreck" a year ago is that the state moved very slowly in
                    cutting benefits. To date, only 332 of the 115,000 people on welfare in Pennsylvania a year ago have
                    lost their benefits, and most of them for 30- or 60-day periods.

                    This gradualism may, in turn, have encouraged some welfare recipients who could have found jobs
                    to stay on welfare. At present, Philadelphia's welfare-to-work apparatus has more jobs available
                    than it has job-seekers.

                    Philadelphia's nationally acclaimed Philadelphia@Work program, which was set up to deal with the
                    hardest of the hard to serve, is operating at less than half its 700-person capacity.

                    The number of people on welfare in the state, however, has continued to decline by about the same
                    percentage as for the nation as a whole. Welfare recipients in Philadelphia declined from 56,400 a
                    year ago to 48,300 in January, the most recent period for which statistics are available.

                    There's disagreement about how many more people can be moved from welfare to work and how
                    fast. Jones feels that the city's welfare rolls now comprise mostly people with "multiple problems"
                    including drug addiction and illiteracy. He is not sure that increasing the number of sanctioned
                    recipients will necessarily speed the flow of people into jobs.

                    On the other hand, the experience of other states indicates that further progress is possible. Three
                    states have cut their welfare caseloads by more than 80 percent; one of them, Wisconsin, cut its list
                    by 93 percent.

                    Ultimately, of course, caseload reduction is not the real test of welfare reform. Its proponents made
                    predictions that were as rosy as the forecasts of opponents were dismal. Welfare reform, it was
                    suggested, would transform troubled inner-city slums into safe, clean neighborhoods inhabited by
                    residents who once again felt part of mainstream American society.

                    At present, that outcome seems as far-fetched as those of the doomsayers.

                    The big lesson to be drawn right now may be that we are not powerless to confront major social
                    issues. If we can make progress in changing welfare, perhaps we can do the same for education and
                    health care, without having the sky fall.

                    David Boldt's column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. His e-mail address is