The Hard Line

THE RUBBER IS starting to
meet the road on welfare reform. How to implement last summer's Clinton/Gingrich bill will be among the top priorities when the state Legislature meets in January. To get their two cents' worth in early, officials in Hennepin County--home to about one-third of the state's welfare recipients--have drawn up a couple of documents indicating where they'd like the system to go. The papers, copies of which were obtained by City Pages, suggest an approach heavy on workfare, slim on cash benefits, and overshadowed by the ever-present "welfare migration" bugaboo.

By now, the basic outlines of the federal reform are familiar: Families won't be able to get benefits for more than five years in a lifetime. Legal immigrants will be dropped from the rolls unless states decide to keep them on. People who aren't parents or certified as disabled will have a hard time getting any benefits at all. Welfare will be tied to work.

In a discussion paper drawn up earlier this fall, Hennepin County staffers offered some speculation as to what this could actually look like. Welfare grants, it suggested, could be cut back to a uniform $300 per family--regardless of size--per month. That money would be paid only if recipients also worked at least 30 hours a week, thus theoretically making enough money (between their paychecks, the grant, and food stamps) to survive at the poverty level. The newly employed recipients would still be covered by Medical Assistance. In some cases, companies would get a subsidy to employ them. And, in an echo of the county's longstanding efforts to cut emergency shelter spending, families wouldn't be able to stay in shelters anywhere for more than a month. (The primary goal of this, the document said, was "to slow migration between states and between counties.")

Not surprisingly, the plan drew boos from welfare-rights advocates, who called it punitive and politically dangerous. For one, they noted, the discussion paper didn't say anything about additional funding to pay for necessities like child care and job training. Regarding the tough-sounding work requirements, some note that county board chairman Peter McLaughlin is applying for a top job in the federal Department of Labor--which, presumably, would have a big role in implementing welfare reform on the federal end.

McLaughlin, a supporter of publicly sponsored employment programs, was at a conference in Duluth early this week and could not be reached for comment. County staffers, for their part, say they must respond to "the new federal reality." "There are bad connotations to workfare," says county welfare reform coordinator Suzanne Gaines. "But it's better than no income at all. And we keep coming back to those five years. At the end of that, people are going to have to have their own income, and we think it's better to confront them with that right away."

County staffers, perhaps as a result of the widespread criticism, now all but disavow the specifics presented in their original discussion paper. The list of principles they've presented to the county board are far more general and laced with words like "human capital investment." The explosive question of whether bigger families should get more money is left open in the new document, because staffers couldn't agree.

County commissioners are supposed to discuss the principles during a retreat later this month. In the big picture, of course, welfare reform is not Hennepin County's decision to make--though it's clear its preferences will carry some weight as a political signal. The most comprehensive plan for a new welfare system is being put together by the state Department of Human Services--which, according to current reports, will allow for more exemptions with fewer penalties than the Hennepin County document suggested.

Even when the state plan comes out, lots of questions will still need to be answered by the Legislature, including most of the really tough ones. Among them is whether to continue giving benefits to legal immigrants and what to do with people who can't get or keep a private-sector job (the ugly little secret there is that setting up public jobs for people with little skill or experience costs more than just handing them a check). And finally, no one has even begun to figure out what to do when the economy dips into a recession--which will mean more people needing help, no more money from the feds, and very few jobs for all those workfare clients.

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