LAST WEEK, in this space, I wrote about the administration's plans to ''reform'' welfare reform. The White House plans are so perverse that the subject deserves a deeper look.
Thanks to the convergence of a strong economy and a flexible program, a majority of people pushed off the welfare rolls by the 1996 welfare reform law actually improved their lives in the work force. The Bush administration wants to change that, for the worse, with a new set of rigid formulas and work quotas.
The post-1996 experience has provided a kind of natural experiment in what local approaches help the dependent poor escape the welfare life to become durable and productive members of the work force. States that have done the best, not just at cutting the rolls but at raising earnings of the poor, are those that have used welfare funds flexibly, on work and family supports and education.
These states, including Oregon, Vermont, Minnesota, Washington, Wisconsin, cut across party. Their governors include Republicans, Democrats, and an independent. They have in common a willingness to recognize that one original premise of welfare reform - that welfare recipients should always ''work first'' - was misguided, while the program's willingness to trust states to innovate with education and training was right on target.
In these states, among others, surplus welfare funds have been used to help poor women get many kinds of training - short term or long term depending on needs. They've also gone to subsidize wages and child care. States have invested in ''career-ladder'' programs, so that progress doesn't end in a poverty-level minimum wage job. The forward-looking states have particularly resisted rigid bureaucratic formulas and worked to help families succeed.
But now, over the objections of most governors, the administration wants to rigidify the rules. In all families with children aged one or older, women would have to spend 40 hours in work or in training activities closely related to work. (In last week's column, I mistakenly wrote that only paid work was credited.) But many of the most valuable educational supports would not qualify. And unless 70 percent of people in the system met this threshold by 2007, the state would lose funds.
The most promising educational efforts, through which women and their kids have escaped poverty, could no longer be counted as part of the 40 hours (as they are under present law). Portland, Ore., for example, has one of the best records in moving people from welfare to work and also improving their earnings. According to a report by the Center for Law and Social Policy, the Portland program pushes hard to get people into the work force, but allows the first post-welfare activity to vary widely, according to the person's work history, skills, and needs. Models such as this one would be barred by the administration's new rigid rules.
The White House approach, contradicting five years of research findings and the wishes of most governors, would also force many more people into dead end ''workfare'' activities. Though the administration's new welfare blueprint imposes new costs, it provides no new money.
Why is the Bush administration doing this? The main reason is ideology - a desire to be tough on welfare. But today most of the poor, thanks to welfare reform, are struggling to succeed in the work force. It's hard to find many Americans, outside of a small clique of ideologues, who think the 1996 program wasn't tough enough.
The White House also has strange bedfellows. ''New Democrats'' in the Senate, led by Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, have proposed a bill that closely parallels the White House plan, sweetened by more money for child care. This bill is actually to the right of a measure proposed by ''tripartisan'' group on the Senate Finance Committee (three Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent), which retains the current flexible work requirements and adds more support for education. Eighteen Democrats, led by Senators Kennedy and Wellstone, propose even better work supports.
The 1996 welfare reform succeeded, beyond the hopes of its sponsors and the fears of its critics. But it worked not just by shoving people off the rolls but by making it possible for them to improve their lives in the paid work force. It recognized that many people were lacking not just better attitudes, but marketable skills and safe places to leave their children.
All this was real progress. What a shame that welfare reform is again regressing to a contest to see who can be tougher on the poor.
Robert Kuttner's is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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