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Welfare plan: no work, no money

The task force drafting President Clinton's welfare plan is urging him to abandon traditional work programs for a more stringent approach that denies any cash to welfare recipients who fail to work, officials said.

The endorsement of the plan, called "work for wages," was reached at an unusual daylong meeting Saturday that for the first time spelled out many of the details behind Clinton's campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it."

To keep families from coming onto welfare, for instance, the task force wants to spend an extra $2-billion a year on child care for low-income workers. That would, in effect, double the government's annual spending on such programs.

And to reduce the number of jobs needed, the task force wants to phase in the program over 10 years or longer. The work requirements would apply only to mothers born after 1972, a move that would initially exempt about three-fourths of the caseload.

While Saturday's meeting spelled out important new details on the emerging plan, a number of issues remain unresolved. Perhaps the most important is how to pay for the program, which is expected to cost up to $7-billion a year.

The work-for-wages plan would mark a sharp departure from previous work programs for welfare recipients. Those programs, sometimes called "workfare," continue to send out welfare checks while requiring recipients to show up on a job site, often in a government office.

Studies indicate that those programs have done little to move people into private jobs. And critics say welfare rules make it too difficult to penalize recipients who do not show up for work.

The work-for-wages program, by contrast, would try to better simulate a regular job. States would pay private companies, government agencies or non-profit groups to hire welfare recipients for a limited period of time. Those who do not show up for work would get no cash at all.

Some advocates for the poor say the work-for-wages plan could harm vulnerable families by exposing them to the whims of employers without a welfare system to fall back on.

They fear, for example, that a mother could be accused of poor work habits, dismissed from her job and left without any eligibility for cash assistance.

The task force is also uncertain about how to treat welfare recipients who complete a work program but still cannot find regular jobs on their own.

Allowing families to continually re-enroll in a work program could prove costly and dissuade people from seeking independent jobs. But barring families from re-enrolling could leave them with no way of supporting themselves.

The recommendations were discussed Wednesday at a two-hour Cabinet meeting, as the administration moves to fulfill one of Clinton's most popular campaign promises. He has vowed to expand training opportunities for welfare recipients and require those still unemployed after two years to join a work program.

The task force drafting the Clinton welfare plan is made up of 32 officials from 10 federal agencies. For the past several months, however, most of the work has been done by the group's three co-chairmen: David Ellwood and Mary Jo Bane, assistant secretaries of Health and Human Services, and Bruce Reed, a White House aide.

As they presented their findings on Saturday, they cloaked them in an unusual amount of secrecy. The members were given less than an hour to read a 45-page paper, which they were not allowed to keep. Each page was stamped with the member's name, to prevent them from removing a page.

Several people who attended the meeting, annoyed at what they called excessive secrecy, agreed to provide accounts of the discussion.

The group also endorsed a provision that would require welfare mothers under the age of 18 to remain in their parents' home rather than setting up independent households. That is intended to dissuade young women from becoming pregnant.

In addition, the group called for the Treasury Department to find a way of giving low-income workers advanced payments on the refundable tax credits they now collect at year's end. The idea is to make work more immediately rewarding.

The group also voted to allow states to let 10 percent of their caseloads remain in training for longer than two years _ to pursue, for instance, higher educations.

In backing the work-for-wages approach, the task force hopes to create a more dignified set of work programs. "In principle, persons are wage earners, rather than recipients," the confidential paper said, according to the notes of someone at the meeting.

But some advocates worry that employers may not be able to accommodate the often-chaotic lives of young, unskilled mothers. People on welfare often accept, but lose, jobs frequently, as spirits flag or problems arise with child care or transportation.

"There needs to be protections against the arbitrariness of employers, and there needs to be some sort of safety net," said Jodie Levin-Epstein, of the Center for Law and Social Policy, a Washington research and advocacy group. "Otherwise, it could make poor women worse off than they are today."