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Welfare Jolt

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, July 8, 1997; Page A15


Marcia Widmer knows the welfare system from the outside in and from the inside out. Widmer, 36, was a legislative assistant at the Arizona Community Action Association and an expert on the Arizona legislature's recent gyrations as it passed a new welfare reform plan.

A few years ago, she was thrust onto public assistance – food stamps and Medicaid for her kids – after her husband developed a drug problem and abruptly left the family. Her two boys, then 8 and 4, are now 13 and 9.

Widmer is a success story. She worked a series of jobs (packing boxes at Price Club, serving at Chili's) and eventually went back to Arizona State. She graduated last year, after writing an honors thesis about welfare reform. This fall, she heads to Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, where she won a scholarship.

Hear Widmer out. Her views may surprise you because they don't fit neatly into little ideological boxes. She is an unabashed advocate of more assistance to the poor. She says that without public help, she and her family wouldn't have made it: "The food stamps meant everything. Medicaid for the kids meant everything." She got through college thanks to scholarship money, student loans and Pell Grants.

Widmer is also devoted to the work of private charities, including the Jewish Community Center here, which helped care for her children while she worked and gave her much good advice.

Widmer is also as firm as any Contract-With-America Republican in asserting that the old welfare system – which formally died on July 1 – was a mess that needed fixing.

"Before welfare reform, people who worked and wanted to get educations weren't rewarded," she said, and welfare caseworkers "weren't there to help you along in any way."

The decline of blue-collar employment combined with the workings of the welfare state has created a bizarre counter-economy in many inner-city areas: "Whole neighborhoods are supported by AFDC and food stamps," she said. The welfare state "replaced the factory where everyone would go to work. . . . The cycle of just living in these neighborhoods has got to end. But not enough is being done."

That's where she faults her own state's recent welfare reform efforts and the federal government's. After a long struggle, Arizona passed a compromise plan that rejected fully privatizing the state's welfare system but proposed privatization experiments in parts of the Phoenix area. The idea, pushed by State Sen. Tom Patterson, a Republican with aspirations to be governor, is to turn welfare administration over to private companies such as Lockheed, IBM or Electronic Data Systems.

But Widmer argues that privatization misses the main issue, which is whether government is serious about making welfare recipients self-sufficient. If her state were, she thinks, its welfare reform plan would include far more money for such basics as child care and transportation. Single mothers can't work if they can't get to work and if their kids aren't cared for.

The shame of our current national approach to welfare reform is not that we're doing it but that we could be doing it so much better. There is a strong consensus even among the staunchest liberals that the old welfare system was a trap and needed to be changed into a program to get people into jobs.

The danger of the reforms is not that they will force people to work but that people will be forced off the rolls without work to go to. Janet Regner, the executive director of the Arizona Community Action Association, worries that those who "fall out of the system" will arrive at the doorsteps of voluntary groups that lack the money to help them.

The good news about welfare reform, says Widmer, is that some on the rolls "are going to be jolted into action." But many others, especially long-term recipients, will need more than a jolt – and more help than she needed. Having fallen abruptly from the middle class to poverty, she still had some resources (her friends at the Jewish Community Center, for example) and hopes.

Widmer suggests that anybody who thinks it's easy to move from welfare or food stamps to work – let alone to college and graduate school – learn first what's it's like to be so poor that you can't pay your phone bill and your electric bill in the same month. Widmer might consider giving a course of her own when she gets to Harvard.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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