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Hands off welfare funds

Now that reform has shown some success, some members of Congress want states to give back unspent welfare money. The request is short-sighted and greedy, and those making it should reconsider.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert and others in Congress want the states to return some of the $4-billion in federal welfare monies they have received but not yet spent. That request is short-sighted and greedy. While welfare-to-work changes have had encouraging success to date, problems remain that threaten to slow down that progress and perhaps roll back the gains already achieved. Congress needs to keep its promise and keep its hands off that money so the states can continue to deal with challenges as they arise.

Even as he touted those early successes at a welfare-to-work partnership forum last week, President Clinton sent a necessary reminder to Congress that welfare overhaul is far from complete. "In every state, there are still people who could move from welfare to work if they had more training, if they had transportation, if they had child care," the president said.

Like the president, who took a beating from members of his own party when he accepted the 1996 welfare overhaul, Congress has reason to crow _ and to remain cautious. It is encouraging that all states met, and many exceeded, targets set by lawmakers for moving recipients off welfare and into work. But experts agree that those remaining on welfare will be harder to place. They will need the most training, along with other help, to find and keep a job.

Even the 35 percent of recipients who have already found work need continued monitoring. In many cases, their jobs do not pay a wage that raises them and their families out of poverty. In addition, a lack of training, transportation or child care often makes it difficult to stay employed. Those realities help explain why, in Florida as elsewhere, thousands of former recipients have left the welfare system, only to reapply later. States will continue to need the federal monies they have received _ if not far more _ to address these and other problems.

Few dispute that the robust economy has fed the progress of welfare reform to this point. When the next recession comes, those new workers are likely to be among the first to lose their jobs. States should be allowed to save some of the money allocated to them, if only to provide a hedge against any reversal in the fortunes of former welfare recipients as a result of an economic downturn.

There are more immediate needs that demand attention, too. Recipients who go off welfare can still qualify to receive food-stamp and Medicaid benefits for up to a year. Yet an alarming number of recipients across the country have been denied those benefits. In Florida, advocates charge that the state's welfare agencies are either carelessly or intentionally keeping clients in the dark.

Florida Legal Services last week filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court, claiming that the state has illegally denied Medicaid coverage to thousands of working parents and children. The suit raises important concerns over whether former and current welfare recipients are getting the help and benefits they are due.

It also serves as one more reminder that, as far as welfare reform has come, there's still a long way to go.