As the nation's leaders search for new methods of fighting poverty, many state programs are being considered as possible alternatives. One of these, the employment training program (ET) of Massachusetts, is receiving special attention since being portrayed in a recent presidential news conference as a successful local initiative soon to be undone by proposed administration budget cuts. It is true that the proposed budget would cut the WIN demonstration funds that pay for ET, but it is not true that this decision is unmerited.
The strongest selling point that Gov. Michael Dukakis has for ET is that it has provided 23,000 unsubsidized jobs to welfare recipients since its inception in 1983. That is an impressive number, except for the fact that in the past three years there has been a total Aid to Families with Dependent Children caseload of 264,000 in Massachusetts. The actual AFDC caseload has only declined by 5.5 percent since 1983, and at best, 8.7 percent of welfare recipients have been moved into private sector jobs in the last three years.
This is not a very encouraging report from what is supposed to be a success story, because the unemployment rate in Massachusetts has fallen from 6.4 percent in 1983 to a present level of 3.3 percent, which is less than half the national average. If we consider AFDC families as part of the unemployed, we would expect the performance of the economy to cut their numbers by 3.1 percent since 1983, or by 8,200 cases. This raises serious questions as to whether the reductions that have occurred are really due to ET or the phenomenal performance of the state's economy.
A common criticism of work incentive programs in the past has been that those able to use job training to break out of the poverty trap have been those who least needed the help. ET also suffers from this problem.
About 40 percent of the people the program is said to have aided attend only initial counseling sessions to qualify for such benefits as unemployment insurance payments. People receiving unemployment benefits already have an employment record and marketable skills. Typically, they find new jobs without any special training or aid from ET. But because these individuals are included as part of the plan's success, the ability of the program to assist inexperienced, unskilled workers is obscured.
Dukakis also compares the percentage change of AFDC cases in Massachusetts to the same measure in a number of other large welfare states and finds that Massachusetts is faring the best. But given the disparities among states, a fairer comparison would be with a place that has experienced similar economic fortunes. The rate of unemployment in North Carolina, for example, has fallen by 2.9 percentage points since 1983. The state's AFDC caseload has fallen by 10 percent. This is a larger reduction in recipients than Massachusetts experienced over the same period and clearly casts doubt on any claim that ET is superior to conventional programs.
A natural retort to this sort of argument is that the program has never had enough funding so that only small numbers of those on welfare could participate. With more money the results would be better. That line of argument is valid, but it must be kept in mind that somewhere near 40 percent of those placed in jobs would have found employment on their own. And that consideration will radically alter any cost-benefit comparisons to other methods. Also, as the unemployed are reduced to a core who are absolutely unskilled, it could take a number of years to train them. Costs will be higher than projected because of this effect as well as the more common problem of cyclical unemployment.
But this is not to say that certain features do not merit further attention. The extension of child care benefits to single working mothers and travel subsidies to the unemployed to help them get to available jobs encourages those who are making tentative steps toward economic independence. The availability of vocational and community college education to the participants is also admirable because it seeks to address the failure of our educational system among members of the underclass. Salaries related to performance should also provide effective motivation for the administrators of the program. But to claim that the overall performance of the program at the state level merits national duplication is patently false.
A consensus is emerging that regardless of the future structure of anti-poverty programs, they must emphasize personal responsibility. Expansive, expensive and ineffective programs are no longer tolerable. Some aspects of Dukakis' program do point toward the future, but it is apparent that ET does not provide that magic element that will link the needy poor with a robust economy and change the face of poverty in the nation.