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Weld's Deal for Those on Dole


NEW Jersey has the "family cap." Michigan allows welfare recipients to earn money on the job without immediately docking benefit pay. Iowa helps working welfare moms pay for child care.

Each of these states has been a leader in the nationwide effort to rethink the way governments help those on the bottom rungs climb out of poverty.

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Now Massachusetts is taking the reform movement to new and controversial heights.

The state that gave us John Kennedy and Jack Kerouac today begins implementing the broadest and toughest package of welfare reforms in the country, some 25 initiatives designed to push and prod poor people toward self-sufficiency.

If there is something in a name, the re- titled Department of Transitional Assistance, once Public Welfare, symbolizes how far the nation is evolving from the era started by Franklin Roosevelt 60 years ago.

Championed by Gov. William Weld, a Republican with higher ambitions, the reforms reject the notion of welfare as a public right.

Though many of the ideas are already under way in other states, the package makes Massachusetts, long identified with liberalism, one of the nation's premier test beds for a more conservative approach to welfare. The measures take aim at what conservatives regard as the ravages of the welfare state: illegitimacy, fraud, broken families, cyclical poverty.

But critics say many of the reforms are misplaced and overreaching. While it may be flawed, they argue, welfare is not the primary cause of such social malaise. And launching so many reforms at once will make it difficult to judge their effectiveness. If the state sees a drop in the welfare load, which reform will have produced the effect?

"This is not anyone's idea of an experiment," says Betsy Wright of the private Massachusetts Human Services Coalition. "This is an enormous social change without any scientific intent."

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Even so, Massachusetts is not walking a lonely trail. The Clinton administration has granted more than 30 waivers to states to implement welfare reforms. Congress, meanwhile, is hammering out differences between House and Senate bills that would give states unpredecented flexibility to design their own programs.

When Congress produces a single bill, probably later this month, the national debate will escalate between the White House and Capitol Hill over the nation's social safety net. Republican lawmakers want to remove the entitlement status of welfare by providing states with nonrestricted funds called block grants. The White House opposes such free-form experimentation.

But as Massachusetts shows, the momentum is already with the states, and governors are clamoring for greater freedom from federal requirements. States believe they can save more money and design programs better suited to the needs of their residents.

Some 92,000 families receive welfare benefits in Massachusetts. The program cost the state $781.7 million this year. As the reforms kick in, the state expects to spend more as well as shift funding to reflect new priorities. Boston will spend $31 million less on direct grants to people, but $40 million more on child care. Overall, spending will go up in the first year by roughly $17 million.

"In the short run, it's about turning lives around, not saving money," says Dick Powers of the Department of Transitional Assistance. "We're trying to create a new environment for children, so they learn that welfare isn't an acceptable lifestyle."

The new reforms apply to all those entering the system today. Existing cases will be reviewed to see which measures apply.

At the heart of the reforms is work. All able-bodied recipients with school-age children will be required to work 20 hours a week. Those who don't find work will perform community-service work. The state in turn will allow recipients to keep more of what they earn before reducing benefits.

To help open the job market, the state will provide short-term subsidies to employers who hire current and former recipients. Proponents of such work requirements say that on any given day, Massachusetts has roughly 15,000 entry-level jobs open, so recipients should have adequate opportunities to work.

But critics say that is short-sighted. Most of these jobs are filled naturally by the unemployed. If recipients aren't given opportunities to gain more education and skills, they will be stuck in no-benefit jobs that pay too little to support a family and are vulnerable to downturns.

Other reforms are more strict. Teenage mothers must live at home or in state-provided settings. Mothers must identify the fathers of their children in order to receive benefits. Recipients who have more children will receive no further benefits. Two pilot programs require fingerprinting to crack down on fraud. And pending federal approval is a provision that would limit recipients to two years of benefits.

Judging the effectiveness of such reforms is difficult. Despite all the experimentation going on in the states, most initiatives are so new that they have yet to produce measurable effects.

But Evelyn Brodkin, a welfare expert at the University of Chicago, worries that such reforms are simplified responses to complex problems. States may end up saving money on welfare only to have to spend it elsewhere. Massachusetts may already have an illustration. After eight children died this year in foster care, Mr. Weld requested $8.8 million in additional funds.

Is that system ready for an increasing caseload when the state starts putting teenage mothers in group homes? Will the state pay more for courts to track down negligent fathers or for bigger bureaucracies to handle fingerprinting and school-truancy records?

"I marvel at why the states have so strongly wanted more control over welfare," Dr. Brodkin says.

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