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Welfare Rolls Continue Sharp Decline

By John F. Harris and Judith Havemann
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 13 1997; Page A01

One year after a far-reaching welfare reform law ended 60 years of guaranteed support for the poor, the Clinton administration released figures yesterday showing public assistance rolls continuing to decline sharply with the percentage of people on welfare at its lowest level since 1970.

Nationwide, there are 10.7 million welfare recipients, a number that has dropped by 3.4 million, nearly 25 percent, since President Clinton took office, and by 1.45 million in the past year alone.

The decline, at a rate of 200,000 a month, is the deepest and most sustained in U.S. history.

Although welfare caseloads are plunging across the country – 29 percent in Tennessee, 49 percent in Wyoming in the past year – no one knows for certain what is causing the decline or where the people are going. How many are taking jobs and climbing into the working class, for example, rather than falling into destitution?

Critics of last year's welfare overhaul said they suspect much of the decline results from people being forced off welfare or turned away because of tightened state eligibility rules. But Clinton, who signed the welfare bill amid a fractured Democratic Party, said the new figures offer vindication that his approach emphasizing work and training is paying dividends as it is implemented at the state level.

"A lot of people said that welfare reform would never work because the private economy wouldn't do its part or the government wouldn't do its part or we couldn't figure out how to get people from welfare to work – you know, I heard all the reasons that people said it wouldn't work," Clinton told an audience of job trainees and St. Louis business leaders trying to put welfare recipients in jobs. "But a year later, I think it's fair to say the debate is over. We now know that welfare reform works."

The welfare rolls have traditionally followed the ebb and flow of the business cycle to some degree, but analysts on the left and right say the current numbers seem to be driven by something more than the economy.

Before 1993, there were only two years in the 60-year history of the federal welfare program when the rolls dropped by more than 250,000 people in a single year; if current trends continue, 1997 will be the third consecutive year when the welfare population dropped by 1 million people or more, administration figures show.

"The old image of welfare was that it was like a granite mountain – you might be able to chisel off a few rocks here and there, but the mountain would still be there," said Robert Rector, senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "What we have seen is that welfare is not like a mountain, but like a balloon; prick it and it will almost collapse."

Still, even White House officials don't argue that the new numbers can be attributed directly to C linton's signing of the welfare law. But they say the drop over the past several years is caused by a confluence of favorable trends – in particular the strong economy, and a flush of innovation at the state level.

Even before Clinton signed the welfare overhaul, the administration had given 43 states permission to conduct their own welfare experiments.

Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala said a study for the White House Council of Economic Advisers conducted several months ago showed that about 40 percent of the decline in welfare rolls is linked to the economy and 31 percent was because of policy changes by states approved by waivers. The remaining 29 percent or so of the reduction was caused by other factors.

While Clinton boasted yesterday that "the debate is over," Shalala sounded a more cautious note. The decline in welfare rolls is encouraging, she said, but "the real test" is still to come, because finding someone a job is not as difficult as keeping them employed over the long haul. "Ask me two or three years from now where people are," she said.

Clinton made his remarks in a sweltering warehouse that has been converted into a worker training facility by a consortium of St. Louis businesses. The day was designed to promote the nonprofit "Welfare to Work Partnership" that was started earlier this year to encourage businesses to hire people off welfare. He several times touted the group's new toll-free number (1-888-USA-JOB1), and said Vice President Gore would lead an initiative in which civic and business groups would create a mentor program for new employees.

Eli Segal, the president of the partnership, said some 800 employers have joined his effort and agreed to hire welfare recipients, in part because "companies really do see this as a new source of labor."

In some parts of the country, the unemployment rate is below 3 percent, creating an unusually favorable environment for welfare recipients trying to find jobs.

"The economy right now is growing so strongly that there is a tremendous demand for workers and some employers are willing to take on people who have very few skills and give them a try," said New York-based labor economist Audrey Freedman.

The year-old welfare law gives states vast new flexibility to design their own programs, requires recipients to go to work within two years, and limits to five years the amount of time anyone can receive federal benefits.

Many states are going even further, pushing welfare recipients to find work immediately, to perform community service, to name the fathers of their children so that the state can collect child support, and to look seriously for jobs before they are even accepted onto the welfare rolls in the first place.

"One part of the explanation is clearly the economy and the continued low unemployment rate, one part does involve the increased focus on employment in the welfare system, and the third part is that some states have responded to the new law by making it more difficult for families to receive or continue receiving assistance," said Mark Greenberg, an attorney at the liberal Center for Law and Social Policy who tracks welfare issues.

But few states have solid information on why their welfare rolls are declining. Massachusetts, one of the few states to attempt to trace the fate of former recipients, found that about half of those who had left the rolls found jobs, about 10 percent moved out of the state, another 10 percent received child support payments that made them ineligible, nearly 10 percent no longer qualified because their children grew too old and a handful were reapplying for assistance.

The caseload declines vary widely from state to state, with Hawaii and Alaska showing the only increases since the passage of the welfare law. Every other state has shown a sharp decline.

Idaho's welfare rolls, for example, have shrunk from 21,947 last August to 7,890 in July, with 8,773 of those individuals disappearing July 1 when the state implemented tough new work requirements.

"We are doing a survey of all the people who left in April, May and June to find out what their status is," said Mary Ann Saunders of Idaho's Department of Health and Welfare. "A fair number of folks said they were just going to work, they didn't want to use up their [eligibility]; others said, 'I see the child support requirement, and I don't want my boyfriend hassled'; and some are deriving other income somehow and don't want to meet the work requirement."

Some researchers say the welfare rosters are declining not only because people are leaving the rolls but because some others couldn't get in the door. Alabama Arise, an advocacy group there, said there are four explanations for the caseload decline of approximately 13 percent in the state: the economy, the new message about work requirements, the welfare bureaucracy's increased focus on helping people get jobs and a stricter application process.

Recently, the percentage of applicants approved for welfare in the state fell from 63 percent to 46 percent, according to the group.

Harris reported from St. Louis, Havemann from Washington.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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