1. Archive

Test of welfare reform isn't over

In some circles, America's welfare reform has already been declared a success. Five years after Congress approved a time limit and work requirements for welfare, the number of people on the rolls has fallen by half, to 6-million, and many former recipients, including single mothers, have found at least part-time employment. But heartening as these facts are, it is premature to assume from them that the 1996 law has been a successful experiment. Five years is a short time for testing a substantively new social policy _ and these particular five years have not been ordinary ones.

A significant question remains: To what extent are these positive outcomes related to the extraordinary economic boom in the late '90s and into 2000? We don't know yet whether the numbers will hold if the current slowdown continues or gets worse.

And a close look reveals something else: A large group of women for whom the transition to work has not been successful even with the help of the boom.

To informed observers, the changes in the rates of welfare and employment from 1996 through 2000 should not be particularly surprising, given strong economic growth, extremely low unemployment rates, increases in the minimum wage and unexpectedly low inflation. The thriving economy has helped poor people happily become more self-sufficient.

A study that we are conducting with several collaborators in low-income neighborhoods in Boston, Chicago and San Antonio has shown that some mothers who have left welfare and worked as security guards, shelf stockers or waitresses have an improved sense of self. However, low-wage employment by itself cannot ensure that all mothers who leave welfare will become self-sufficient. Many have not.

Our ongoing study, which began in 1999, is tracking a random sample of 2,458 families to monitor the consequences of the law. Field workers are closely observing another 235 families.

Three-fourths of the women we spoke to in 1999 who had been off welfare for two years or less had incomes below the federal poverty line. They were meeting basic expenses with government help like food stamps and, if they were working, the earned income tax credit.

The longer they had been off welfare, the less likely they were to have health insurance for themselves or their children, because decreases in the rates of Medicaid coverage were not offset by increases in their private insurance. And many mothers had great difficulties balancing work and child care without health coverage or other elements of the middle-class support system, like an automobile, some savings and paid sick leave.

Women with less education, with poorer health, with younger children and who are themselves young have considerably lower incomes and rates of employment after leaving welfare than do women with the opposite circumstances. And among those who had been on welfare for the longest periods, employment rates and incomes are considerably lower than average. Many of these women subsist by relying on money from friends and family, cutting back on necessities and delaying payment of bills.

The welfare reform law expires in 2002. As Congress gets ready to reauthorize it _ or modify it _ members should be giving serious attention to the significant numbers of women who have not fared well after leaving welfare and have been struggling in a booming economy. We have received a lot of information about the good news of welfare reform. Americans need to be aware of its limitations as well. And they must be wary of the potential for bad news, including a sharp increase in joblessness among former welfare recipients, if the economy does indeed turn sour.

William Julius Williams is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Andrew J. Cherlin is a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University.

New York Times