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This welfare reform won't work

THERE are some very good provisions in the new welfare reform bill. Unfortunately, the much-celebrated ``work'' components are not among them. The welfare reform measure is being hailed as a sweeping revision of the nation's public assistance programs which will finally move able-bodied welfare parents off the welfare rolls and into the work force.

Rep. Thomas Downey (D) of New York, one of the bill's original co-sponsors, lauds it as ``the first significant change in the welfare system in 53 years.'' Mr. Downey says, ``It will make it easier for [welfare mothers] to go to work.''

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As if that were the problem. Already, half of all women who join welfare - whether because of a divorce, the death of a husband, or the loss of a job - leave the system in two years or less, most by returning to work. As New York University's Lawrence Mead points out, even most of the women who lack high-level job skills still manage to find economically rewarding ways to support themselves.

The real welfare problem lies with those women who remain on the rolls for long periods of time. The most recent figures show that, for women who first enter the system before age 25 by giving birth out of wedlock, the average total welfare stay is more than nine years. Even if they do leave the rolls for a short time, as many as 40 percent return - and a large number remain dependent until their last eligible child turns 18.

According to a recent report to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, among these long-term welfare recipients the lack of orientation and acculturation toward work - not a lack of jobs or skills - is the main reason they stay dependent so long.

Enter the new welfare bill. This ``excellent compromise,'' as Lloyd Bentsen has described it, takes what at first appear to be dramatic steps. It requires welfare parents whose children are over age 3 to enroll in state basic education, job training, work experience, or job search programs, insofar as state funds are available.

The bill also assures recipients of a year's child care assistance and medicaid eligibility after they obtain a job and work their way off welfare. And to boost the incomes of welfare mothers, the bill mandates deductions of legally due child support contributions from fathers' paychecks, even if the men are not behind in their payments.

These provisions sound at once exacting and helpful, and they are - to a degree. No doubt, the day-care and medicaid carryovers will help smooth the way from dependency to self-support for those who choose to work. And the child support enforcement apparatus will make sure some scofflaw fathers pay up, even though it will do nothing for absent fathers who do not work or who rely on ``off the books'' income.

But the bill's biggest deficiency is in its work-related provisions. These come complete with three major escape clauses, any of which is big enough to drive most of the current system through.

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The most obvious flaw is the proviso declaring that recipients are obligated to participate in job-related programs only to the extent that state funds are available. If that makes sense from an administrative standpoint, it does little to create a mass exodus from welfare to work. The bill's enrollment targets, fiercely demanded by the Reagan administration, are nonetheless incredibly low: only 7 percent at the outset, and no more than 20 percent by the middle of the next decade. The rest of welfare mothers - 4 out of 5, even at the measure's apex - will not be required to do anything.

Nor will the other one-fifth who are affected by these provisions be ``mainstreamed,'' as proponents allege. The welfare recipients will be required to participate in limited job training and other ``skills enhancement'' programs. No one will be required actually to work, at least for very long. And mothers with a young child in the house - a common characteristic of welfare families - will be excused from training programs, not to mention work, altogether.

In other words, this ``most significant welfare reform in half a century'' is only a little more of the same - a little more training, a bit more child support, and a few more encomiums to the work ethic. It will help welfare mothers and taxpayers a little - but that's about all.

In fact, we already have a good idea how the program will work, because major features of the new plan have been in operation in New York and Massachusetts for the past few years. In those two states, at a time of dramatic regional economic growth and rapid job creation, the welfare rolls have declined by a scant 5 percent. The welfare problems in the states that served as a model for the new federal effort are almost as big as they ever were.

So half a cheer for the new welfare reform law. It is a step, but a very small step, in the right direction. If we truly want to end welfare dependency, the country still has a long, long way to go.

Kevin R. Hopkins is a senior research fellow at the Hudson Institute, a policy research organization headquartered in Indianapolis. He was project director of Hudson's year-long study of welfare dependency, conducted for the US Department of Health and Human Services and published in 1987.

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