The Reagan administration's new "workfare" rules contain a provision under which states could almost come out ahead from having families on welfare.
A state could require a family to do work whose value even at the minimum wage is greater than the family's total welfare benefit.
The idea of "workfare," pushed through Congress last summer by the administration, was to have the adult members of a welfare family work off their benefits in community work and training programs run by the states and local governments.
Now, a little-noticed provision of the "workfare" regulations, published by the Department of Health and Human Services, says that a state under certain conditions can make each eligible adult member of a welfare family separately work off the total amount of benefits received by the family.
So if there were two members of the family subject to "workfare," they could be made to work off twice the actual cash amount of the total family welfare benefit.
For example, according to welfare organizations protesting the regulation, suppose a family of four was receiving a total monthly welfare check of $335, and there were two adult members that the state could make participate in "workfare." Each one could be forced under the regulations to work 100 hours a month. With each hour credited at $3.35, the federal minimum wage, as required in the new regulation, the value of total work performed would be 200 hours at $3.35 an hour, or $670.
The regulation, first published Sept. 21, is now being protested by the American Public Welfare Association, the Child Welfare League and other welfare groups. The APWA says the rule clearly goes beyond the intent of Congress when it authorized the states to set up "workfare" programs and, in effect, lets states force welfare clients "to work for one-half the minimum wage."
Al Russo, former director of the D.C. Department of Human Resources and welfare director of Rhode Island, who is now an official of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes, had a much harsher description.
"I call it a form of involuntary servitude," Russo said in a phone interview. "If we are going to let the states adopt 'workfare,' it should be limited to a single adult employable member of the household."
Under the contemplated new rules, the state is not obliged to require more than one family member to work. The new regulation leaves that optional, and HHS officials said so far no state has put the rule into effect. But many states are only beginning to plan what they should do. HHS said it did not believe it is exceeding the intent of Congress in allowing states to make each eligible member of a family separately work off the entire family benefit.
Under the general rules for "workfare," the person who is required to work at a community project doesn't get paid. Instead, the family continues to receive its normal AFDC check and the state simply keeps track of the hours worked.
The new regulations state that the maximum hours any individual may be required to put into a "workfare" project, multiplied by the minimum wage rate for the state or the national minimum wage rate, whichever is higher, should not exceed the family's benefit. But then, in the part of the regulation being protested, it goes on to say: "Should two or more persons in the same family meet the Community Work Experience Program requirements, a state may, at state option, require each family member to work the same number of hours as would be required if only one member of the family were eligible for CWEP."