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The "Why" Behind "y"

Economy affords welfare reform success

In this story: Jeff Flock March 6, 1998
Web posted at: 11:00 a.m. EDT (1600 GMT)

By Correspondent Jeff Flock

MILWAUKEE (CNN) -- The headlines this week read "Wisconsin prints the last welfare checks ever." But they don't begin to tell the whole story of welfare reform.

The headlines out of Wisconsin, a state that has helped pioneer the trend of welfare reform, are the latest signpost on the road of a national effort widely hailed as a success.

Welfare has been, by all accounts, one of the most bloated bureaucracies created by the Great Society. It has been hated not only by Archie Bunker-types reluctantly supporting it with taxes, but also by many of its embarrassed recipients.

But until recently, it was considered to be political suicide to mess with programs meant to help make the needy secure.

Then in 1996, Congress and President Clinton passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act to end "welfare as we know it." The new system puts time restrictions on eligibility and requires work in exchange.

Surprise: it works. Welfare rolls have dropped by nearly a third, to the lowest level in 27 years, according to the National Governors' Association. Caseloads are smaller in every state but Hawaii.

Tommy Thompson

Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who has been out front on this issue from the start, calls his state's welfare-to-work system "a powerful ladder" that will allow people to "climb out of poverty."

'It's the economy, stupid'

Politicians have had a ladder of their own in all this: the strong U.S. economy.

Some observers have suggested that President Clinton, under investigation for possible impropriety with a White House intern, can do pretty much anything as long as the economy is solid.

It may be that the same can be said of welfare reform: The strong economy is affording a lot of trial-and-error wiggle room for reform, as even the National Conference of State Legislatures admits.

Put another way, taking an entitlement away is easier when the economy is strong and the labor market is tight.

Laura Bustamante

"I'm a lot better off," says former Wisconsin welfare recipient Laura Bustamante. She was getting $280 a month through the old federal welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children. She now makes $673 a month training for what promises to be a real job.

With wages of at least $6 to $7 an hour even for low-skilled jobs, the job market now offers more than minimum wage and more than welfare.

The work-for-pay concept wasn't invented by Clinton and Congress in 1996. Wisconsin and other states had been tinkering long before, when finding something other than so-called "make-work" jobs was a problem.

But it's easier now for former welfare recipients to be in the job market, because the robust economy has created real jobs that businesses need to fill.

'My mommy's going to work'

Many welfare-to-work advocates contend children are better off in child care while their mothers work, rather than having them get paid to sit home and take care of the children themselves.

Tangela Bunch

"My mommy's going to work," young Michael Bunch boasts to his friends about mom Tangela, also in work training.

"Mainly, that's why I work -- it's for myself but it's mainly for him," she says.

It may be that if Mom is actually going out to a real job and bringing home real money, she can provide a sense of pride for her family, and the example of accomplishment is bred.

The hard part of welfare reform comes when there simply aren't any jobs, even "make work" jobs. And the hard part is sure to come when the economy makes its inevitable downward cycle and workers are laid off.

What happens then will determine the ultimate success of welfore reform. Maybe companies will find ways to retain workers in lean times.

Short of that, the headlines then may very well read: "Wisconsin prints first welfare checks since 1998."


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