Journal Issue: Welfare to Work Volume 7 Number 1 Spring 1997
By the early 1990s, JOBS implementation had been overshadowed in many states by new actions designed to increase the work effort of welfare mothers and to decrease rates of out-of-wedlock births. States began to request waivers from the federal government to deny increased AFDC benefits to recipients who bear additional children or to increase work incentives by allowing employed recipients to keep more of their earnings and benefits. (See the Appendix to this journal issue for examples.) These proposals bypassed the JOBS welfare-to-work strategy, focusing instead on the rules of the mainstream AFDC system.
Coming close on the heels of the waiver requests was a new round of debate over national welfare reform. In combination with strong interest in deficit reduction, critiques of AFDC by political conservatives and a Democratic President stimulated proposals before the 104th Congress to place lifetime limits on the amount of time a family can receive benefits and to return major responsibility for income support to the states. Very little imprint of the JOBS welfare-to-work strategy can be detected in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. In fact, the new law eliminates a separate allocation for JOBS, requiring that high proportions of families receiving benefits be engaged in work-related programs, but not obliging states to expend funds to provide those programs.
The welfare reform legislation makes it clear that only nine years after the passage of FSA, the government is rethinking the balances struck in 1988 between the desire to assure income support for children, on the one hand, and fears that benefits undermine parents' work effort and encourage out-of-wedlock births, on the other. Capped funding for child care subsidies suggests a retreat from the principle of ensuring good care for children. Reductions in state expenditures for welfare-to-work programs will likely derail efforts to rely on long-term education strategies to reduce welfare dependency. Welfare recipients will face more stringent demands for work, but they will receive far less assistance in securing employment.
From one perspective, movement away from welfare-to-work programs is understandable. Research thus far has indicated that these programs have made only modest differences in employment and earnings outcomes.37 Yet some argue that it is our society's failure to follow through on welfare-to-work legislation by seriously implementing welfare-to-work programs that has limited the contribution these programs have made.18 As discussed here, JOBS was tried only for a short period of time, was seldom fully funded by states, and was quickly eclipsed by the movement to change core AFDC eligibility rules. In recent congressional testimony, MDRC's president argued that, "The history of reform in the nation's employment and training system is one in which the structure is changed but the real action—the interaction between welfare recipients and the quality of employment services—is neglected."38
The same testimony cautioned, however, that welfare-to-work programs are not "miracle cures" for family poverty.39 Many economists observe that former welfare recipients face great difficulties in finding employment at wages that adequately support their children (see the article by Burtless in this journal issue). Such conclusions, combined with our knowledge of the risks that poverty poses to the development of children, argue for income supplementation strategies that "make work pay."20 Similarly, research showing that the quality of child care matters for children's healthy development and school readiness 40,41 suggests that if welfare families are pressed to use low-cost, substandard child care arrangements in order to work, the harm to children may outweigh benefits of mothers entering the paid workforce (see the article by Kisker and Ross in this journal issue).
Almost all of the policy changes described in this article were undertaken in hopes of solving the problem of welfare dependency. But the very length and complexity of the story of successive waves of reform suggest that the hope for a single "solution" is unfounded. A more realistic goal may be to achieve a steadier balance between the opposing values and concerns that complicate welfare reform. While Americans want to protect and nurture poor children, they have a sterner message for the parents of those children. In the view of these authors, one prerequisite of a credible and stable welfare reform policy is that it remain true to the original AFDC goal of protecting children.