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Wages of Welfare Reform

Monday, May 19 1997; Page A20

THE PRESIDENT was right to order that welfare recipients put to work under the terms of last year's welfare bill be paid the minimum wage. The objecting governors and other critics are likewise right when they say that his decision will throw the bill even further out of whack than it already was. What the president basically proved in doing the right thing on the wage was how great a mistake he made in caving in to election-year pressures, some of them of his own making, and signing the bill to begin with.

The problem with the welfare part of this legislation – as distinct from the gratuitous cuts that it also imposed in other programs for the poor – is the mismatch that exists between its commands and the resources it provides to carry them out. The basic command is that welfare recipients work, but that's not something that can be achieved by the snap of a finger or the waving of a wand or it would have happened long ago. A lot of welfare recipients aren't capable of holding down jobs without an enormous amount of support. Nor, in many cases, are there jobs enough in the private sector to accommodate them even if they could hold them down.

The cost to the states of putting to work as many recipients as the bill requires was already going to be greater over time than the fixed funding in the bill. The minimum wage decision will only add to the cost; hence the squawk from the governors. But it's not the decision that was wrong. Welfare recipients put to work are no less entitled to the protections of the wage and hour laws than other workers. To pay them less would also be to undercut the wages of other workers with whom they will now compete for low-paying jobs. That was a major part of the argument organized labor used in pushing for the order. Wages in that part of the economy are already too low to support a family, and income inequality in the country generally is too great.

The law requires that increasing percentages of welfare recipients work each year. States that fail to meet the targets risk loss of some of their federal funds. The number of hours a recipient must work to qualify also increases. Twenty hours a week will be enough at first, but eventually that will rise to 30. For now, the way the president's order is written, most states will be able to put recipients to work themselves, or pay private employers to do so, for about the amount of a monthly welfare check. But over time that will cease to be true; a welfare check that will pay for 20 hours at the minimum wage won't cover 30.

The state will have to come up with the difference. Or it will have to start lopping people off the rolls for other reasons. The bill gives states power to do that, too, and that's what welfare advocacy groups fear may happen in states whose low benefits won't cover all the hours the bill requires. Back to the mismatch: The bill requires more than it pays for. As with the other flaws in this misbegotten legislation, sooner or later this one needs to be fixed, or a lot of vulnerable people including children badly in need of help are going to end up harmed instead.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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