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The Welfare Gloss

Sunday, August 24, 1997; Page C06

THE WELFARE rolls are sharply down, and the president says at the anniversary of having signed last year's bill that "the debate is over. We now know that welfare reform works."

Is it simply churlish of those of us who had deep reservations about key parts of the bill to find the rejoicing and announcements of vindication premature and even a little slippery? It will come as no surprise to find that we don't think it's churlish. We think it's justified. But hear the case:

The president to the contrary notwithstanding, nobody knows on the basis of what has happened to date "that welfare reform works." Senior members of his own administration acknowledge as much. The continuing debate has to do with the harm the bill may do – in our judgment, will almost surely do – when its main provisions begin to bind. Importantly, they haven't done so yet; the bulk of the "reform" the president touts has yet to take effect. The rolls, meanwhile, have been dropping at a rapid and accelerating pace for several years.

No one fully understands the reasons for the decline – any more than there are full explanations for the rapid increase in the caseload in the five years preceding. Welfare reforms that the states instituted with the encouragement of both the Bush and Clinton administrations in the years before enactment of the federal bill are commonly offered as a partial explanation for the lower numbers. The likelihood is that some of those in fact have had a salutary effect, if only by sending the important message – no small thing – that the society intends henceforth to insist that those who can work, do.

But as the Rockefeller Institute at the State University of New York reported just last week, "the precise relationship [of the state reforms to the declines of the last few years] is . . . not clear." And in any case, the principal cause, as almost everyone agrees, has been not policy but the continuing growth of the economy. The current expansion, which began in early 1991, took the usual several years to begin to drive down the welfare rolls, but has steadily done so since.

The question is what happens when (a) the expansion stops, the economy begins instead to drift or decline and (b) the bill begins to take full effect. The odds are that these may happen at about the same time in the next few years. The number of people without work and in need of aid will go up; the funding for aid will not, or at any rate not in the commensurate way it has in the past. The time limits and other sanctions meant to move people off the rolls will begin to bind even as less work is available, and in a period in which the states themselves will be cutting back. The states are currently flush, not least because of an up-front bonus built into the legislation to help secure their support. But the bonus will carry them only so far, and their revenues decline in recessions. That will be the time to measure whether welfare reform "works."

The welfare bill also made – was cover for – sharp cuts in other programs for the poor having little to do with welfare. The president rightly takes credit for having won the restoration this year of some of these, but only about a fourth. Among the least defensible of the cuts, not restored, were several in the food stamp program, which sets the implicit national income floor. Among much else, the value of a family's food stamps will no longer be tied as closely to inflation as in the past. In real terms, X years from now, the income floor will be appreciably lower than under prior law. Not a word is said about that.

There still is a need; and it is wrong to measure success by whether the caseload happens to be rising or falling at a given moment in the business cycle. It is good news if the rolls go down because people are getting lasting jobs. It is not good news if they go down simply because people are being cut off. We tend not to do a good job of tracking people when they leave the program. It's probably fair to assume that most people leaving now are finding work, and that some number of them could and should have done so all along. You can probably also assume as a general rule that the ablest are leaving first. What happens when there aren't jobs, and you're down to the less able?

The welfare bill has helped to shake up a system that badly needed the shaking, stepped up the pressure on recipients to find work and on the society at large – states, employers – to provide the necessary jobs. That's great – but it's not all this bill does. Its long-term effect will be to lower the level of support the society offers its most vulnerable members, including many children, without having put in place a clear alternative. The bill whose success the president so prematurely celebrates was in many key respects a retreat from responsibility. That unfortunately remains the case no matter how he and the others responsible for it try to dress it up.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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