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The plight of the poor // Flawed welfare reform needs to be revamped

Four weeks ago, 1-million poor, jobless food stamp recipients received notices from their states telling them their food stamps would be terminated in late February.

This is being done as part of the new welfare law: Individuals age 18 to 50 who are not disabled or raising minor children will, as a rule, be limited to just three months of food stamps in each three-year period, except for months in which they are employed.

Its supporters describe this provision as a work requirement that will make sure these individuals work if they are to receive food assistance. But when taken in conjunction with other provisions of the bill, its likely effect will be to make it harder for them to find work, and then to cut off their stamps after 90 days if they haven't been able to secure employment, no matter how hard they might have tried.

For the first time in the history of the food stamp program, indigent people will be denied food assistance not because they are unwilling to work but because they can't find jobs. Those who will be affected are among the poorest of the poor; Agriculture Department data show their average annual income is 28 percent of the poverty level, or about $2,200 for a single person. More than 40 percent are women, and nearly one-third are between the ages of 40 and 50.

In the next few days, President Clinton must decide whether his new budget will include a proposal to modify the provision so it promotes work without punishing poor people who can't find jobs. If he does, Congress will need to consider whether some change is in order here.

The conventional wisdom is that Congress will resist changes in the welfare bill. But in fact, it's unclear whether Congress understood the harsh effects this particular provision will have.

For example, one of the provision's chief sponsors, Rep. John Kasich, said on the House floor in July that under the provision, food stamp recipients would look for work and, if unable to find it, would perform workfare to earn their food stamps. Kasich said that 45 states ran workfare programs.

Unfortunately, that isn't the case. Food stamp workfare programs actually exist in only 10 states, and most of these programs are in just a few counties and cover only a handful of people. Nor do many states plan to create new workfare slots in response to the new law. Whatever new work slots most states develop are being reserved for welfare mothers, not single adults on food stamps.

And the new law neither gives states any new funds for food stamp workfare programs nor imposes a penalty on states if they don't mount such programs, as it does if states fail to place enough welfare mothers in work activities.

So unless these people find jobs on their own in 90 days, they generally will be out of luck. While some recipients can and do find work in such a time frame, many with low levels of education and skills cannot. The academic research in this field shows that in many cities there are far more low-skill job seekers than low-skill jobs.

One noted study of the fast-food business in Harlem, for example, found 14 applicants for every fast-food job in that area. It also found that three-fourths of the unsuccessful applicants were still out of work a year later, despite, in most cases, having made repeated job applications.

Welfare reform is likely to make this problem more severe for childless adults on food stamps. More than a million low-skill welfare mothers are expected to enter the low-wage labor market over time, further increasing the imbalance between job seekers and jobs.

Many states say they plan to develop programs to try to place these mothers in jobs, and under the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit, employers will receive federal tax subsidies for hiring them. This is likely to push childless adults with low skills even farther back in line.

Fortunately, there is a way to address this grim situation. It is to restructure the provision so it does what its proponents claim: function as a true work requirement that is tough but fair.

Require recipients of food stamps to work, but provide workfare slots or other work activity for those who don't land private-sector jobs. Provide resources to states to create and manage these slots. Cut off food stamps for those who don't report to these jobs and comply with work requirements.

But don't deny aid to people willing to work without providing them a job opportunity.

Sometime before Christmas, the president will decide whether to take action on this matter. If he does, Congress will need to decide whether to revamp the provision so it comports more closely with the work requirement rhetoric that has surrounded it, or simply to maintain a provision that seems straight out of the pages of Charles Dickens.

Robert Greenstein is director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Special to the Washington Post