Welfare Reform Success Cited in L.A.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 1998; Page A01
Independent researchers have found the first solid evidence that welfare reform is beginning to work in the nation's largest cities, federal officials announced yesterday.
While the welfare rolls have declined by nearly 4 million individuals since President Clinton signed dramatic overhaul legislation two years ago this Saturday, the biggest drops have occurred in rural states and suburban communities.
In Los Angeles, however, home to more welfare recipients than 48 of the 50 states, recipients who were subject to the requirements of reform were far more successful at getting jobs and made significantly more money than recipients who were not, according to the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a noted New York research group.
The typical welfare family subject to the reform initiatives earned $1,286 in the first six months of the program, while "control group" families earned $879, a difference of 46 percent. The study covered a period from 1996 to 1997.
Up to now, many of the early results from welfare reform have been attributed to the robust economy and to "creaming" -- the tendency for the most able and well-educated recipients to leave the rolls on their own and get jobs without much state intervention.
But Los Angeles provides the first hard evidence that welfare reform is beginning to touch the inner city, where many of the most disadvantaged recipients are clustered.
Most of the recipients included in the study had only a 10th-grade education. More than a third had not worked within the past two years. Nearly half had never been married, and one in five had a limited proficiency in English.
"No other large city has ever shown results like this," said Lawrence Mead, professor of politics at New York University and author of a recent book on welfare reform.
Other researchers pointed out that while Los Angeles had been more successful than other big cities, most recipients were still not working.
"We should exercise caution here," said Toby Herr, director of Project Match in Chicago. "If we know we can get 43 percent to work, what percentage can we keep working, and how can we shorten the intervals between jobs?"
The federal law requires recipients to work, puts limits on how long someone can receive benefits and gives states broad latitude to design their own programs.
The Clinton administration yesterday released statistics showing a continued, steep decline in welfare caseloads nationally. Since Clinton took office in early 1993, the number of Americans receiving welfare has fallen by 5.7 million, or 41 percent.
Given that drop, the findings on Los Angeles are particularly significant because the welfare recipients remaining on the rolls are increasingly concentrated in the nation's inner cities, according to a study conducted last May by Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institution.
Nearly 70 percent of 23 large cities and urban counties "did not perform as well as their states in moving recipients off the welfare payrolls," Katz found. In 1996, most cities had "shares of the state's welfare population that were larger than the cities' share of the state's total population."
Los Angeles County -- which has 750,000 people on welfare, the largest caseload in the nation after the states of California and New York -- required recipients to attend job orientation sessions, look for work, participate in job clubs and work with job counselors. These activities have become central features of most states' efforts to carry out the federal welfare law.
The Los Angeles story is particularly striking when compared with its previous welfare reform efforts. In the 1980s, Los Angeles County tested a welfare overhaul aimed at providing education and job training so that recipients could qualify for better jobs. At the end of the first year, the results were nil.
About 27 percent of welfare recipients enrolled in the expensive new program got jobs. Welfare recipients who were excluded from the program got jobs at an almost identical rate -- 25 percent. The group that received the educational help made $1,304 in the first year, while the group for which nothing was done made $1,308.
Although the results of the most recent program reflect only six months, John W. Wallace, vice president of the regional office of Manpower Demonstration Research, said the pattern appeared to be holding up for at least the first year of the program.
"L.A. showed an openness and willingness to learn from the research, to change and adopt the best practices in the field," Wallace said.
Los Angeles welfare director Lynn W. Bayer said that although the program had been "very successful in getting people their first job," the city is now focusing on "post-employment services" to help recipients get better jobs so they can earn enough to support their families.
Most of the Los Angeles recipients were still receiving welfare because their earnings were so low. The typical welfare recipient who was working was earning $6.54 an hour. Bayer said recipients need to earn $7.82 an hour before they make enough to stop receiving assistance.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company