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War Against Poverty Goes On

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THE 1988 ``workfare'' laws passed by Congress - requiring parents (mainly women) on welfare to participate in educational and job-training programs - were built partly on the optimistic hope that the experience and the exposure to a larger world of responsibility would help those on welfare to get off. The idea behind the central Family Support Act is a useful one, as far as it goes. Work is a fundamental part of life, and almost any experience of work is better than none. How well the program itself is faring in the states, it is too early to tell. But a new study by Child Trends, a Washington think tank on children and family issues, suggests that the early hopes for workfare must be tempered.

Lack and despair among the most impoverished of the nation's 3.3 million welfare mothers are so ingrained that change will come slowly, if at all, the study suggests. Most of the mothers ``would not qualify for ... the US Armed Forces,'' it adds. Moreover, the change in most cases will be from ``welfare poverty'' to ``working poverty.''

Such findings are not surprising. The complex problem of poverty can't be solved by social programs alone, important as such programs may be. The idea of ``job training'' is itself often an impoverished notion - if it is presented without any deeper notion of the need for self-government and improvement of character. How to inculcate such values is a great unanswered public question, of course. But the fact that the Family Support Act will increasingly focus on real education, not just skills training, is a positive sign.

Not all the Child Trends news was negative. The study differentiated among types of poverty, and found cause for hope among a ``second quarter'' of welfare mothers. The first quarter are mothers who can succeed without help. The second quarter are those for whom only a little education and work will make a difference. Identifying such a cohort to target will prove helpful in making policy.

Those individuals who move from welfare to even low-paying jobs deserve support. Enforcing rules such as child-support from fathers, and Earned Income Tax Credits to help supplement low salaries are a start.

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