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Real Work for Real Wages

By Sander Levin
Thursday, August 21, 1997; Page A19


At its core, welfare reform is about the value of work. To the person performing the work, to his or her dependents learning by example and to a society that gains in productivity and the diminution of stereotypes, work is the central policy of welfare reform.

The strength of a policy for reform based on work was clearly evident when the public supported the president's veto of earlier proposals because they did not provide for adequate day care and health care for people moving off welfare into work, even though many other workers are not assured them.

It was evident last month when we restored benefits denied to elderly and disabled legal immigrants because the public agreed that welfare reform was about moving able-bodied people into work, not withdrawing benefits from persons too elderly or disabled to work.

Many states reaffirmed the principle by recycling extra funds from decreased welfare caseloads back into work-related services such as child care, transportation and job placement.

And this year a $3 billion welfare-to-work initiative to help states with longer-term recipients who are often more difficult to place in jobs prevailed with bipartisan support.

Contrast this bipartisan approach with the partisan flare-up that occurred in July, when House Republicans tried to strip away federal minimum-wage and other federal workplace protections for welfare recipients who go to work in the public or not-for-profit sectors. Their initial effort had the pretense of paying the minimum wage, but states could have deducted the value of child care, housing and health care, allowing them, in effect, to pay significantly less than the minimum wage. When the light was shined on this effort, Republicans backed off the proposal for such a sub-minimum wage, but their approach still would have denied federal enforcement of minimum-wage laws and of a number of other important federal protections from health and safety hazards in the workplace, discrimination based on age or religion, or sexual harassment.

Thwarted in the final budget bill, the Republicans may try again in September. If they do, you can expect to hear the following arguments for their approach:

Denying federal protections under the new welfare reform law follows the pattern of the Democratic-initiated Family Support Act of 1988. The work program in the 1988 act differed substantially from the framework of the 1996 welfare reform law. It represented primarily a training program limited to nine months of participation for most individuals, and it had no mandate to move people into work.

Because public workfare jobs are mostly temporary, they are not "real jobs," and paying these individuals less gives them a greater incentive to move into the private job market. Numerous community service and other workfare positions are indistinguishable from private-sector jobs, and for them as well as other positions, payment of at least a minimum wage is a greater incentive to stay in the workplace and stay off welfare.

Running these programs with federal minimum-wage and other protections would be prohibitively costly and burdensome. This argument fails to take into account the record decrease in caseloads nationwide, the strength of the economy and the additional funds states are receiving from the federal government, which should provide states with adequate funds to meet the work participation rates in the years immediately ahead. If in the future any state cannot meet participation rates required by the federal government, the answer is to provide assistance to the states, not to create a second class of American workers by a broad exemption from federal protections.

People moving off welfare into work are not "real" workers. This stereotypical attitude infused the remarks of one House Republican who recently asserted that "it is dishonest, it seems to me, or at least misleading to try and convince America that these are hard-working people just trying to raise their families when in fact they are welfare recipients."

I found vivid answers to these arguments during my recent visits to Detroit Workplace, a program that combines discipline, an emphasis on work's dignity and support services for people moving into jobs. Both administrators and participants were clear: Do not create a second class of citizens by degrading the value of work. In their eyes, paying below the minimum wage was not an incentive to stay in the workplace and off welfare.

To be sure, there was a political context to welfare reform, inevitable for what was probably the least popular of all social programs. That makes it easy for antagonists to claim that the president's position stems from "taking dictation" from "big labor," ostensibly to help Al Gore. And one observer has even suggested this issue "gives the Republicans a rare opportunity to define the political landscape."

But such notions miss what is at the core of welfare reform – the value and dignity of work. And though the road ahead will be more difficult than the journey of the first year, the answer is surely not to degrade the work of those moving from welfare into jobs.

The writer, a Democratic representative from Michigan, is the ranking member of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources, which has jurisdiction over welfare reform.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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