A Welfare Policy That Cities Should Refuse

Margy Waller
Margy Waller Visiting Fellow, Economic Studies and Metropolitan Policy, The Brookings Institution

July 2, 2002

Last month Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson announced a federal initiative to help a few cities do a better job of moving long-term welfare recipients into work.

The 57 largest cities will be asked to compete for the privilege of being one of 10 cities that will get technical assistance from HHS on how to do a better job of serving welfare recipients. Moreover, urban administrators will also get to come together and share information about best practices.

However, there are two big problems with this proposal.

First, what does the Bush administration think the administrators of these programs have been doing since the work-based federal welfare reform program was passed six years ago? It is patronizing to suggest that the federal government has something meaningful to tell front-line workers and administrators.

Second, it doesn’t seem as though the administration gave much thought to how to help cities deal with the combination of concentrated poverty, welfare recipients with significant barriers to work, and a disproportionate share of welfare cases getting close to the time limit for benefits. After all, HHS and White House officials are the ones who are playing hardball to pass a welfare reauthorization bill that will make it significantly harder for cities and states to deal with these issues.

Bush proposes to reduce the flexibility that welfare administrators have used to design individualized welfare-to-work plans. He suggests increasing the number of hours states will have to require individuals to participate in work activities and at the same time narrows the list of activities that count as work. Finally, he proposes to raise the bar for states: They would need to increase the percentage of recipients participating in this narrow set of activities from 30 percent to 70 percent.

What’s the practical effect of such proposals? They will straitjacket local program administrators. Suppose a front-line worker assesses a long-term welfare recipient and concludes that the mother of three young children is clinically depressed and would benefit from a job search program. Mental health treatment and job search do not count as eligible activities for participation (with limited exceptions). With the reduced flexibility in the proposed program, administrators will feel pressed to allow recipients to participate in activities that count toward the rate 100 percent of the time.

Does the administrator have to choose which treatment is more critical for this mother? And what happens if she also has a substance abuse problem? Recent research indicates that long-term recipients are likely to have multiple barriers to work. The Bush proposal doesn’t seem to acknowledge many of the research outcomes.

In fact, the Manpower Research Demonstration Corporation determined that these proposed changes to the work requirements would force most administrators to abandon their programs in favor of an unpaid ”work experience” program. But these workfare activities have little effect on employment or income outcomes. Washington State just abandoned such a program after comparing its results with such other strategies as combining education and work or paid work experience with wraparound supports.

Last year, the Brookings Institution’s Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy surveyed a number of urban welfare administrators to determine what cities need from welfare reauthorization. The answer was virtually the opposite of what the president has proposed. At or near the top of the list of changes cities desired was more – not less – flexibility.

To the proposal that Thompson announced, the mayors should respond: What advice do you think you can give us when we’ve already been doing this for the past several years? What can you offer us when you seem to think the next step in welfare to work policy should be a one-size-fits-all workfare program? Don’t make 57 of us jump through hoops so that 10 of us can sit at a table and talk about how the reauthorization proposal pushed by the White House creates all sorts of problems for cities.

Instead, the administration should accept the bipartisan proposal developed by Senators John Breaux, the Louisiana Democrat, and Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, among others. It raises the ante on work but doesn’t take away the flexibility that Thompson and others so appreciated when they designed their own welfare programs. It is an offer cities can work with.

Margy Waller, former senior adviser on welfare and working families to President Clinton, is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.