With the Clinton administration preoccupied with health care, the federal welfare reform debate has gotten off to a slow start. But at the state and local level, an astonishing array of welfare reform efforts is under way.
Michigan has dropped all single, able-bodied adults without dependent children from its welfare rolls, saving $250 million a year. At the same time, the state has reduced the incentive not to work for those who remain eligible. Recipients are allowed to earn up to $200 a month without reducing the size of their welfare checks; wages above $200 are penalized by only 20 percent. One in four Michigan welfare recipients is now working. State officials propose even more incentives to work, such as advancing recipients their earned-income tax credits in cash instead of making them wait for refunds and giving recipients with jobs a cash supplement instead of food stamps.
The size of Wisconsin’s welfare caseload has dropped by 17 percent since 1987, when Governor Tommy Thompson took office after running on an antiwelfare platform. A variety of Thompson-initiated programs mandate job training and require teenagers on welfare to finish their education. The penalty for noncompliance is a cut in benefits. Wisconsin also vigorously enforces its child-support laws. In two pilot programs set to begin shortly in certain counties, the state will provide financial incentives for mothers on welfare to marry and will cut off all cash benefits (but not health insurance and child care) after two years.
Other examples abound. New Jersey refuses to increase benefits if a mother on welfare bears additional children. Georgia requires unmarried welfare recipients under 18 to live with a parent or guardian and freezes benefits for two years if a mother on welfare has another child. California has a mandatory job-training and education program that includes child care and transportation. Florida orders some recipients to start looking for jobs immediately and gives them a crash course in filling out applications and handling interviews. Maryland penalizes recipients who don’t participate in job training or whose children’s school attendance rate drops below 80 percent.
New York City recently signed a contract with America Works, a private company that offers perfunctory training in basic skills, then places the recipient in an entry-level job and is paid only after the client has stayed on the job for several months. (America Works was the subject of a critical article in the New York Times, which Jan Rosenberg analyzes elsewhere in this issue.) Governor Mario Cuomo has introduced a welfare-reform package that includes an earned income tax credit, incentives for teenage recipients to stay in school, and stronger work requirements. And in the most audacious welfare-reform plan to date, Massachusetts Governor William Weld has announced a proposal to cut the state’s rolls nearly in half by channeling the cash grants of most able-bodied recipients into day care and family health insurance, forcing them into the labor market.