A NEW welfare program recently unveiled by Michigan Gov. John Engler (R) shows what can happen when good state government is allowed to seek creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems.
A leader in welfare reform under Governor Engler, now in his second term, Michigan already has one of the best records in putting welfare recipients to work: 31 percent were on the job in December. A few years ago the state eliminated its general-assistance program altogether, moving deserving recipients into more-appropriate programs and ending welfare for others.
Now the governor plans a one-year pilot program - Project Zero - to end unemployment among welfare recipients. Beginning in April, state social workers will visit welfare recipients at home and offer them free help in finding a job, subsidized transportation to work, and subsidized child care. If recipients try to find a job and can't, they can continue to get benefits by performing community service. If they don't try, they'll be off the rolls. Unwed mothers on welfare who have more children will be able to collect benefits for them. The scheme will be tested in a poor Detroit neighborhood, a Detroit suburb, and four rural counties.
Engler's plan goes beyond what his GOP colleagues and congressional Republicans advocate. Most, like Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts, want a time limit of five years or so, after which benefits end. Many propose attacking the problem of rampant unwed motherhood among recipients by refusing benefits to children born to mothers already on welfare.
The Engler proposal has drawn applause from Labor Secretary Robert Reich and from Sen. Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, a formidable welfare expert who has led the liberal counterattack against GOP reform plans on Capitol Hill.
The governor and his staff, with the support of Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature, have offered a glimpse of what can be accomplished when states are given the power to shape their own welfare programs free of mandates and interference from Washington. It also shows that state governments care about the poor and will not engage in a "race to the bottom" to see who can cut benefits the most.
We regret that President Clinton vetoed the welfare-reform legislation Congress sent him. It wasn't perfect; changes will be required in any case as states gain experience with new approaches. What works in Michigan (assuming it succeeds) may not work elsewhere, and other states should be able to craft local solutions appropriate to local conditions.
Meanwhile, the Michigan plan is both a constructive and an important experiment in getting people off welfare and back to work. That should be the goal for every recipient who is physically and mentally able to do so.