The Post's front-page story "Welfare Reform Is on a Roll" [Aug. 3] was grossly misleading. Not until the very end, on the inside page (headline: "Welfare Reform's Triumph Is Affirmed") is it revealed that the central finding of the Urban Institute's study -- which is the subject of the article -- was that 60 percent of the people surveyed had jobs at the time they were interviewed. Hardly a triumph. It means that of the 2.1 million adults who went off the welfare rolls during the period studied, 840,000 did not have jobs. With their children, that is a total of 2.5 million people. Who is worrying about those children?
The real news is deeply troubling. The poor are barely better off in this phenomenal prosperity, and the extremely poor -- those with incomes below half the poverty line (less than $6,750 for a family of three) -- are worse off. During the same two years studied by the Urban Institute (1996 and 1997), the number of extremely poor rose by 700,000 people -- from 13.9 million to 14.6 million people. The lowest 10 percent of single mothers lost nearly one-sixth of their income, and the lowest 40 percent all lost income. Why? Very simple. Benefits lost exceeded earnings gained.
A large minority of those leaving welfare do not find work, many of those who find work don't find steady work, and most of those with steady work don't earn enough to get out of poverty. In a four-state study, only a third of recent welfare recipients with jobs had steady jobs. Another analysis showed that the average income of families still in poverty after leaving welfare was less than $9,000.
Why do so many leave welfare without getting work? Because they are pushed off for failure to show up for an appointment or some other dereliction. In Mississippi the welfare rolls have declined by something like 69 percent, but only 35 percent of those leaving found jobs. Mississippi has an aggressive sanctioning policy. Work is generally better than welfare, but getting out of poverty is the policy aim -- not reducing the welfare rolls by any means possible.
The Urban Institute study is in fact very unsettling. It implies a need for policy change, not satisfaction, especially because so many children are involved. The Post's story helped no one except the politicians who are trumpeting the success of a policy that has hurt so many poor children.
The writer, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, was an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services during the first Clinton administration.