The statistics on welfare shrinkage are impressive. In his State of the Union message, President Clinton proclaimed the rolls have been cut by "nearly a half'' over the last six years. That pace has accelerated in the two and a half years since the enactment of federal welfare reform was enacted.
In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services has found that most states are on course to fulfill a federal mandate to put those still on welfare to work. By 2002, 50 percent of welfare recipients in each state are supposed to have some kind of work - emblematic of their responsibility, under the new approach, to "earn" the public money they're getting.
The workfare juggernaut, however, is approaching rougher ground. Welfare rolls are becoming bottom-heavy with harder-to-place recipients as more people leave public assistance for work in the private sector. The difficulties of those who remain run the gamut: low education, illnesses, drug addiction, lack of work experience.
Dealing with this still sizable population requires extra effort from officials and caseworkers. The states and cities that have gone farthest in moving people from welfare to work have typically done the most to aid the process - through work-preparation programs, help with child care and transportation, and the creation of public-service jobs when necessary.
Such jobs have proved very necessary in New York, for example. Under Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani the city has striven to shed its image as a welfare capital. As many as 37,000 New Yorkers rake lawns and clean sidewalks each month courtesy of Mr. Giuliani's Work Experience Program. That contributes significantly to the mayor's proudest statistic - that more than 400,000 people have been moved off welfare during his tenure.
Another center of welfare-to-work zeal is Wisconsin. It has reduced its rolls by three-quarters. One key, state officials acknowledge, has been a readiness to help find child care for welfare mothers, as well as rides to jobs. Wisconsin's reform push is at the point where such extra help is increasingly important.
As remaining recipients present greater challenges, states and other seats of government have a choice. They can become more ruthless in clearing the rolls. Or they can become more focused on often complex individual needs and problems. That may uncover fraud, or it may reveal sound reasons for not forcing someone to work. Caseworkers may have to become more involved in recipients' lives than they ever did under the old sign-up-and-get-a-check system.
That's the tougher option, but it may well prove less costly to society in the long run.