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Changes to Vermont's System Mandate Work for Recipients

SINGLE mother Joanne Brooking has been working toward a bachelor's degree in sociology. But supporting herself and her five-year-old son, Kyle, hasn't been easy on her $497-a-month welfare payment.

Besides basic needs, she is worried about her unreliable car, which tends to conk out on country roads. ``Living in rural Vermont is a lot different from living in Boston and New York, where there is public transportation to get people around,'' she says.

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Like other welfare recipients, she is just scraping by in tough economic times. But she's worried that money may be even tighter if changes are approved in the state's welfare system, Aid to Families with Needy Children.

The General Assembly, with a push from Gov. Howard Dean (D), is expected to approve time-limited benefits, work incentives, and other welfare-policy changes upon approval of a minimum-wage provision. After much wrangling, passage is likely in January. Meanwhile, a five-year demonstration project will start in July.

Ms. Brooking is concerned about being forced to find work with jobs scarce. ``Mandatory work is like makeshift jobs,'' she says. ``It's a Band-Aid solution.''

Vermont and several other states are moving toward mandatory work requirements and tinkering with welfare changes, urged on by Bush and Clinton administrations. And many are experimenting with time-limited benefits and ``workfare,'' as advocated by President Clinton in his 1992 presidential campaign.

Under Vermont's proposal, welfare recipients would face new rules that emphasize getting them into jobs. Work incentives, for example, will allow recipients to earn more and keep more assets without losing benefits.

But the plan is also stricter than today's system. Welfare recipients who receive benefits after 30 months must take community-service jobs. Sanctions follow if community work is refused, including limits on spending of welfare payments and the loss of health benefits for adults.

``The hope is that you get a job. Then you get off benefits,'' says Steve Wallach, staff assistant in Vermont's Department of Social Welfare.

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Last April, Vermont was one of the first states to receive federal waivers to reform its system under Mr. Clinton. And the new system will be closely watched, as it includes policies advocated by Clinton, including time-limited benefits and work incentives, says Mark Greenberg, senior staff attorney for the liberal Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington.

But reforms have been controversial. Welfare advocates say the new system unfairly punishes people by limiting their benefits. Others say the state can't afford the reforms.

State Senate majority leader John Carroll (R), who worked with the governor to formulate a plan, says he believes the reforms are necessary. While job training and education are important, he says a work requirement is essential. The traditional notion that ``training them till the cows come home, and that's going to do it'' must go, he says.

``Most of us know we sometimes need incentives to do something that is hard and unpleasant,'' he says. ``It sometimes helps that if you know you have got to do it, that there is no choice about it.''

Speaker of the House Ralph Wright (D), however, is critical of legislation that he says will not be fully funded due to a state budget crunch. Vermont officials say the new program will cost some $4 million more per year once it is fully running in five years. ``This is a state that just cut Medicaid by $1 million and created a firestorm,'' he says.

As for Brooking, she hopes people like herself can move out of a cycle of dependence and into decent-paying jobs. ``I just want to see something that brings people out of poverty,'' she says.

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