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Jewish World Review May 4, 2001 / 11 Iyar, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Consumer Reports

Do welfare mothers a kindness: Make them work -- IN the spring of 1994, the last full year of welfare as we knew it, 112,000 Massachusetts families were on the dole. In the spring of 2001, the caseload stands at 41,500 -- a reduction of 63 percent. So spectacular has the success of welfare reform been that it is easy to forget how bitterly -- and with what moral posturing -- it was opposed.

"Stop the war on the poor!" hundreds of demonstrators chanted in February 1995, as the Legislature took up Governor William Weld's bill to impose a time limit on welfare benefits and require able-bodied recipients to work. They found a receptive listener in House Speaker Charles Flaherty, who fumed that Weld was "beating up on kids.... The governor is using his bully pulpit to bully kids."

Earlier, the Massachusetts Council of Churches had denounced welfare reform for being "out of line with the humanitarian traditions of Massachusetts." Cambridge activist Jim Stewart, speaking for something called the Poor People's Defense Committee, was less diplomatic. "The governor is going to use the poor as a whipping post to curry favor with the voting public," he charged. To make the point more forcefully, he and other advocates dragged body bags into the Legislature and dumped manure in the State House halls.

The enemies of reform warned that attaching conditions to welfare would only make the lives of the needy more desperate. Time-limiting benefits years was unrealistic, they cried. Forcing welfare mothers to work was cruel. The inevitable result would be more poverty and suffering, especially for children.

They were wrong and Weld -- who insisted that the safety net should be a trampoline, not a hammock -- was right. The new law made it clear to tens of thousands of welfare recipients that the free ride would no longer be endless. It forced them to move toward self-sufficiency and to give up the narcotic of a guaranteed government check.

What the reformers insisted on above all was the indispensability of work -- any work -- even part-time, even minimum-wage, even volunteer -- in getting people off welfare and keeping them off. The best preparation for a job, they repeated again and again, is a job -- not a training program, not vocational education, not college. And they stuck to their guns: In 1997, Weld vetoed a bill that would have allowed the 20-hour-a-week work requirement to be satisfied by taking classes. Last year Governor Paul Cellucci vetoed a similar measure.

Now comes Acting Governor Jane Swift with a shrewd proposal to soften the work mandate after all -- and to toughen it.

Swift's bill would allow welfare recipients who are subject to the work requirement to satisfy half their weekly quota with education or job training. But the time commitment would rise from 20 to 30 hours per week.

More important, Swift's bill would also pave a gaping hole in the welfare reform law. Until now, able-bodied recipients whose youngest child on welfare is under 6 have not been required to do any work at all -- even though they are subject to the two-year time limit. Result: When the clock runs out, most of them are unprepared for real life.

"These are the families we are most concerned about," says Claire McIntyre, the state's welfare commissioner. "We've been shortchanging them since 1996. They use up their 24 months of benefits and then go off welfare, without ever having learned how to support themselves.

No other state exempts welfare mothers from having to work until their children turn 6. Swift isn't the only one who thinks Massachusetts should start doing these women the kindness of making them learn something about the world of employment. "Mothers of children age 2 to 6 should be required to work 20 hours per week," the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and United Way of Massachusetts Bay wrote in a recent joint report. "Requiring them to participate in work, education, or training programs while they receive benefits will better prepare them for life after welfare."

True to form, the opponents of welfare reform began sniping at Swift's proposal as soon as it was released. As always, they object to anything that might make life on welfare more inconvenient -- and there is no disputing that 20 mandatory hours of work per week is a lot more inconvenient than 0 hours.

But life on welfare should be made inconvenient. Not because we want to punish women for foolishly deciding to have a baby before they had a husband and a job, but because we want to discourage their younger sisters and friends from making the same choice. Yes, welfare reform should be designed to get recipients off the dole. But it must also be designed so that it sends a message: This is a lousy way to live.

McIntyre, who has spent 32 years in the welfare department, fears the Legislature may be tempted to enact the substition of education for work without extending the work requirement to all able-bodied recipients. That, she says, would be disastrous.

"Work is the fastest route out of dependence. Nothing else can touch it. The best preparation for a job is a job. I believe that so deeply."

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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