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Though Welfare Rolls Are Down, True Test of Reform Is Just Starting, Experts Say

By Barbara Vobejda and Jon Jeter
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 22 1997; Page A13

One year after President Clinton signed historic legislation revamping the nation's welfare laws, social policy experts and state officials around the country say the system is at an important juncture: The real test of whether the law is a success lies ahead.

While more than 1 million Americans have left the welfare rolls in the past year, they have been the most skilled and the easiest to place in jobs, caseworkers and researchers agree.

That means states must now begin reaching deeper into the ranks of those with long-term welfare dependency – adults with very little education or job skills, or an unwillingness to comply with the new requirements.

Also, the system hasn't been tested in a faltering economy, when jobs are much harder to come by and employers can pass over applicants with little work experience and still meet their labor needs.

"The system is still in transition," said LaDonna Pavetti, a welfare researcher at the Urban Institute. "There's a lot of stages we haven't gone through and until we do, we won't know what it's going to look like in the end."

That view is at odds with claims of victory from Clinton and governors across the country, who point to falling caseloads – the rolls are down 25 percent since Clinton took office – as evidence that welfare reform has worked.

"I think it's fair to say the debate is over," the president said last week.

But even if welfare rolls continue to decline, that may not offer a true picture of whether the law has succeeded not simply in moving people off public assistance, but in helping families lift themselves out of poverty.

And some of the harshest provisions are just taking effect now, including a ban on food stamps to 930,000 legal immigrants, effective today, and denial of benefits to an estimated 135,000 disabled children.

"This has been a nightmare," said Vanessa Cooke, who was told last month that her 9-year-old daughter, La'Shaira, will no longer qualify for $511 in monthly disability benefits.

La'Shaira suffers from a condition known as brittle diabetes, which requires that her blood be drawn and she be given injections at least seven times a day. Cooke said she is unable to hold down a job because she must be home every afternoon to give her daughter a shot and be available on short notice to retrieve La'Shaira from school if her insulin level is off.

But under the welfare law, La'Shaira's condition is no longer considered serious enough to make her eligible for benefits, a decision her mother is appealing.

"I can't just jump up and get a job," Cooke said. "The problem is being able to stay for eight hours a day. . . . When I say, 'I have to leave, my daughter's sick,' what's the chances of them keeping me?"

Critics of the law argue that the harmful impact of this and other new policies will become more visible in the years to come.

Nonetheless, some of the dire predictions put forth when the law was signed have been muted over the past year as states have pursued less harsh policies than some feared.

Children's advocates had warned that, under the new rules, which ended the federal guarantee of benefits to the poor and required recipients to work, states may embark on a "race to the bottom" – slashing benefits to avoid becoming a magnet for disadvantaged families.

But most states have chosen middle-of-the-road strategies and more subtle ways of tightening the system.

Many states have gradually reduced the size of the welfare check handed out each month, for example, but only Idaho has done so since the federal reforms were enacted.

The wide majority of states have kept spending levels constant, transferring savings from falling caseloads into such services as child care, transportation and job training, according to Jack Tweedie, director of the children and families program at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"States did not jet down to that level automatically," he said. "It's clear that there's a real investment in the idea that we have to do more than provide people with cash."

At the same time, many states have made it harder for applicants to get on the welfare rolls in the first place, by requiring up-front job searches, for example, in order to discourage families from seeking benefits.

States have also demonstrated their willingness to cut benefits to those who refuse to comply with strict new work requirements. And they appear to be serious about enforcing the various time limits being imposed as part of welfare reform.

"People are getting cut off," said Judith M. Gueron, director of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a New York research firm. "This isn't just a paper tiger."

When he signed the welfare bill, Clinton vowed to fix the most objectionable provisions, a promise he partially fulfilled in the balanced budget bill signed late last month.

The budget legislation restored Supplemental Security Income payments to about 500,000 elderly and disabled legal immigrants who were in the country when the welfare bill was signed.

As a result of that and other changes, the welfare law is no longer expected to push more than 2 million people, including 1.1 million children, into poverty, as the Urban Institute estimated last year.

Those figures are much lower now, said Sheila Zedlewski, the Urban Institute scholar who issued the poverty predictions. While she has not calculated new estimates, a significant portion of the original number was a result of the SSI provisions that have now been reversed, she said.

Nevertheless, the law has already changed the lives of many families.

Sarouen Meas, a disabled, 64-year-old refugee, is losing most of the $350 his family receives each month in food stamps. Meas said he joined the U.S.-sponsored army in 1970 when civil war broke out in Cambodia, was captured by the communist Khmer Rouge and tortured before escaping to a refugee camp in Thailand.

He moved to Chicago in 1985, but of his five daughters, only one was born in this country and is eligible to receive aid.

"I don't have any money to buy food for my children," he said through an interpreter yesterday at a Capitol Hill news conference held by a coalition of advocacy groups.

ONE YEAR LATER

A year ago today, President Clinton signed a law that turned over control of welfare programs to the states. Some of the most controversial provisions were softened in the new budget bill.

KEY DATES

1996

Aug. 22: President Clinton signs welfare bill, which ends long-standing federal guarantee that eligible poor families can receive cash benefits.

Oct. 1: States that have obtained approval for their new welfare programs begin to receive annual federal payments from the government.

1997

Feb. 22: Able-bodied, unemployed adults without children begin losing food stamps.

July 1: Federal law officially takes effect. Every state must have submitted a welfare plan.

Aug. 22: Today is the deadline for more than 900,000 legal immigrants to lose food stamps.

KEY CHANGES IN BUDGET BILL

Benefits restored to elderly and disabled legal immigrants who were in this country Aug. 22, 1996.

$4 billion in additional funds approved to help some food stamp and welfare recipients find work.

Children losing disability payments are allowed to retain Medicaid.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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