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Tough Steps Credited for Welfare Dip

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  • On the Web: Heritage Foundation welfare studies

  • By Judith Havemann
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, May 10, 1999; Page A2

    Ever since the welfare rolls began to shrink dramatically several years ago, researchers have argued over the reason: Was it primarily the booming economy, welfare reform legislation or both?

    A new study by the conservative Heritage Foundation concludes that the sharp decline in the number of families on the rolls is due almost entirely to tough state policies enacted as part of national welfare reform legislation--and not the economic good times and plummeting unemployment rate.

    Many of the states with the highest unemployment rates have had the greatest success in trimming their welfare rolls, while other states with low unemployment rates have relatively large welfare rolls.

    "The relative vigor of state economies, as measured by unemployment rates, has no statistically significant effect on caseload decline," said Robert Rector, a senior policy analyst for welfare reform at the foundation. Rather, tough action by states in cutting off welfare checks for violating the rules and requiring recipients to go to work immediately were much more important factors, he said.

    Rector's research is the latest entry into the long-running and frequently partisan debate over why the number of welfare recipients has dropped by 37 percent in three years.

    In August 1996, President Clinton signed legislation turning welfare over to the states, allowing them to set their own rules for public assistance, requiring recipients to go to work and limiting aid for individuals to a lifetime total of five years.

    Rector says the state welfare policies enacted subsequently were primarily responsible for the decline--particularly the stringent "sanctions" or financial punishments that many states have instituted against welfare recipients who fail to follow the rules.

    States with the toughest policies, disqualifying recipients after their first infraction of rules, experienced a 41.8 percent reduction in their caseload during the past three years.

    Other states that eliminate checks after imposing a series of progressively more severe sanctions reported a a 28.3 percent reduction, while states that remove only part of the welfare check for noncompliance have cut their caseloads by 17.3 percent, Rector found.

    The number of families receiving welfare dropped from 4.73 million in June 1995 to 2.98 million in June 1998, according to Rector's study.

    Critics argued that Rector's findings grossly understated the effects of the economy, though few doubt that the tougher state policies are having a profound effect.

    Douglas Besharov, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said it is "hard to deny that the economy has helped big time" but acknowledged that without "get-tough" welfare policies, "the economy would have accomplished only a fraction of the reduction."

    Rebecca M. Blank, a member of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, said, "If you run a welfare program where you kick people off for the slightest infraction, I am not in the least surprised that the caseloads are going down. I don't know what it tells us about success."

    Two years ago, the Council of Economic Advisers concluded in a technical report that about 40 percent of the decline in welfare rolls at the time could be attributed to the improving economy. Now, Blank said, most scholars think the economy is responsible for only about 20 percent of the decline.

    Most researchers believe the good economy and powerful state policies are jointly responsible for the declining dependence on welfare.

    LaDonna Pavetti, senior researcher at Mathematica Policy Research, said, "We could not have had the caseload declines that we have seen without the economy being as strong as it is. The policies added a push that wasn't there before."

    "If we had all the policies but not the jobs, we would have some decline, but not as steep a decline," she said.

    Rector said welfare reform should be judged by how many people leave the system. The traditional welfare system was misguided because it was preoccupied with eradicating poverty, he said. "Poverty should not be the principal concern," Rector said. "Dependency and illegitimacy are the most harmful things."

    Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee that oversees welfare policy, said while sanctions have been an important tool for states to use in forcing welfare recipients to abide by the rules, two other factors are possibly more significant.

    First, "there is more social service money available than at any time in history," she said. Second, "we have put in place through bipartisan action a new system of public support for working people that has made work pay."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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