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Our half-full toast to welfare reform is also a half-empty one

It's time now to lift a (half-full) glass to welfare reform.

Three years ago, when Bill Clinton's promise to "end welfare as we know it" evolved into the Republican plan to end welfare altogether, there were dire predictions of a social catastrophe. Well, it hasn't happened.

Today, the welfare rolls are down from 12.2-million in 1996 to 7.3-million. Single mothers are leaving welfare faster than anyone expected. More of them are in jobs than anyone predicted.

It turns out that the carrot, a good economy _ and the stick, time limits _ have had the effect of turning millions of welfare mothers into working mothers.

But before I swallow the bubbly, I can't help noticing that the glass is also half-empty. The mothers who have made the big move from a government check to a paycheck have also stayed put: on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.

As Eli Segal, president of the Welfare to Work Partnership, said at the recent conference in Chicago: "Many of the people who have made the transition are just hanging on . . . They've gone from welfare to poverty, the hardest stage."

Indeed in the midst of the many toasts to success, the Urban Institute released a somewhat more sober survey. Researcher Pamela Loprest looked at lives of women who left welfare between 1995 and 1997. These were the "leavers" not the "pushed-outers," and they offer insight into the post-welfare world.

These mothers are mostly working _ half-full _ and mostly struggling _ half-empty. Their average wage is $6.60 an hour. More than a quarter of them are working nights. Two-thirds have jobs without health insurance. Over half are struggling with child care, and many are having trouble paying for food and rent.

In short, the good/bad news in the survey _ sip this slowly _ is that you can't see much difference between low-income women who were once on welfare and those who always worked. They have the same jobs and the some woes.

Now as toastmistress, let me remind you that welfare was created during the 1930s when the social compact stated that a mother's place was in the home. If her husband died, the government should offer some meager replacement.

But over the last generation, as more and more mothers have gone to work, that compact eroded. The welfare debate became deeply entangled with the controversy about women's roles.

Today, we have all sorts of cultural double messages about moms and jobs. On the one hand, mothers in high-powered careers are often exhorted to quit work and stay home with the kids. On the other hand, poor mothers are told to quit their kids and go to work. It is politically correct to insist that "every mother is a working mother" _ unless she is a welfare mother.

Welfare reform passed in 1996 because there was virtually no constituency left for it. Even single working mothers understandably wondered why they were paying taxes for other single mothers to stay at home.

Now as mothers move from welfare to work, we're closing the gap between the welfare poor and the working poor. No longer divided into the "deserving poor" and the "undeserving poor," these working women hold the same (badly paid) jobs, labor the same (hard) hours, worry about the same (erratic) child care, and share the same (lack of) benefits.

Instead of focusing on character, maybe we can focus on a support system. As we level the field, maybe we can finally see how much it needs to be raised.

I don't want to sound as if I've been refilling my half-full glass too often. Even presuming _ a big presumption _ that the economy stays strong, there are troubles ahead. We've lost a safety net. But we've also lost a scapegoat.

From the beginning, welfare "reformers" were divided between those who wanted to just cut families off the dole and those who wanted to help them up the ladder. In the next phase of welfare-to-work, that struggle is very much alive.

The old social compact is gone. The new compact says that people who work should be able to support themselves and their families. That's when I'll celebrate.

Ellen Goodman is a Boston Globe columnist.

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