Welfare Grandstanding

BY THE TIME you read this, it will probably be official: Minnesota has a new workfare program. A bill greatly expanding state powers vis-à-vis welfare recipients and work requirements passed the Senate floor two weeks ago and was expected to be approved in the House early this week.

The measure's quick slide through the Legislature has come as something of a surprise. When welfare reform failed at the Capitol last year, lawmakers appointed a task force; it met a couple of times without so much as appointing a chair. "People got busy with other things," says Sen. Don Samuelson (DFL-Brainerd), who sponsored both this and last year's welfare reform bill. "So I just started to draft."

Samuelson's core proposal, dubbed "MNJOBS," would require that everyone who applies for or receives AFDC in Minnesota start looking for work immediately. They would have to accept any job offer that is not lower than the person's income on AFDC. Those not employed after four weeks would have to take job-training classes, keep looking, and in many cases participate in "community work experience" (free labor). All this together would have to account for 40 hours a week; for parents with children under 6 it would be eight hours less. People "needed to provide child care" for children under 3 would be exempt.

Critics have pointed out several practical problems with this approach. Long Vue, who works for the community group ACORN and has testified about the bill, says many of the families he's talked to "ask me, 'Will there be a law allowing us to leave kids home alone?'" No. State officials say the plan is for parents to get child care slots through additional funding (somewhere upwards of $1.5 million) for the state's sliding-fee child care program. But they also acknowledge that it would take a lot more than that to serve even the 6,000 families on the waiting list now.

Do these programs really move people into "self-sufficiency"? Though sponsors have made much of California's GAINS program, an analysis by the Legal Services Advocacy Project indicates that only two-thirds of participants there had jobs after three years, about 14 percent more than those who weren't in the program. And only 24 percent of those who got jobs made more than $5,000 a year. Samuelson, a bricklayers' union official by trade, acknowledges that "you can't sustain your family with a child or two on minimum wage," or even on the $6 to $8 an hour many low-end jobs in the metro area now pay. But, he adds, "You have to start somewhere."

That pretty well sums up the thrust of this and other recent welfare-to-work proposals: Where once the emphasis was on education and decent wages, it is now shifting to work--on almost any terms. Under the current proposal, recipients would be allowed only two years of postsecondary education before starting the job search/workfare program. Those who don't speak English would have only one year to learn. But a 1995 study by the JOBS NOW coalition found an average of 31 job seekers for each "livable wage" job requiring less than a year of training. When jobs demanding a year or two of training were included, the ratio was still about 15:1. Livable wage jobs were defined as those paying more than $10.23 an hour for a parent with two children.

Critics have asked why MNJOBS is needed in the first place--especially at a time when Minnesota's welfare rolls are shrinking anyway (there were some 53,000 families on AFDC in November 1995, down almost 10,000 from the year before); when the state has already committed almost $40 million to other welfare-to-work programs; and when federal legislation mandating drastic benefits cutbacks and free labor appear headed for Congressional and White House approval.

One easy explanation is that this kind of thing plays well in reelection campaigns, which may be why legislators approved a (probably unconstitutional) measure to deny benefits to new state residents for 30 days. Cynics also note that among the key groups lobbying for MNJOBS are job-training organizations, which face their own funding reductions from the feds. Programs like MNJOBS could keep them and other social service workers busy with assessments, evaluations, and "employability development plans."

"I think it's a strange twist in logic," says state Sen. Gene Merriam (DFL-Coon Rapids), "that we would pass a bill that has more money spent on attorneys [to litigate the residency requirement] and bureaucrats [to do all the new screening interviews, assessments, and employability development plans] and less on poor people. Somehow we feel good about doing that."

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