Is Welfare to Work Working?

Friday, January 30, 1998
Thomas Macurdy
Thomas Macurdy

ROBINSON Since the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, there has been a 1.4-million-person drop in welfare rolls nationwide. And president Clinton said recently, "The debate is over. We know now that welfare reform works." Is the president correct?

MaCURDY The drop in welfare rolls is primarily due to improvements in the economy. Rates of welfare participation today are approaching the levels attained before the recent recession. The threat of time limits imposed by welfare reform may be in part responsible for the sharp drop in recipients, but this decline is not much greater than we would have expected given the strong performance in labor markets.

Clearly, the debate about welfare reform is not over. It has just begun. We will not know the effects of the 1996 reforms on welfare participation for at least the next decade.

ROBINSON Some contend that this drop in the welfare rolls merely represents the "easy cases." You're saying that's right?

MaCURDY Definitely!

ROBINSON By the way, how would you divvy up the credit for welfare reform? How much credit should go to the president? How much to the Republicans in Congress?

MaCURDY Without a Republican Congress, welfare reform would not have become law. And although it is true that many other Democratic presidents would not have signed the legislation, almost any Republican president would have.

ROBINSON Some states, such as Wisconsin and Massachusetts, seem to be having more success with welfare reform than others. Why? And how is California doing?

MaCURDY None of the states has made much progress in revising their welfare systems, contrary to suggestions in the press. Only two small counties in Wisconsin have even tried new systems for as long as two years, and the time limits imposed in these counties have not yet become binding. So no one knows how well the statewide system recently adopted in Wisconsin will work. And the programs introduced in Milwaukee are just a few months old.

California's new welfare legislation sets goals consistent with federal reforms, but it offers considerable flexibility for counties to achieve these goals. And many of California's counties have welfare populations that are much larger than that in the entire state of Wisconsin. How is California doing? We'll just have to wait and see.

ROBINSON What are you yourself working on these days?

MaCURDY Basically, my job is to monitor welfare reform. As I've said, we're not going to know the full effects of the various reforms for years to come, and in the meantime you can count on lots of different little reforms from state to state and--in California at least--from county to county.

Journalists do a pretty good job of reporting on this or that individual welfare story, but they're not well suited to monitoring welfare issues over periods of months and years. That's exactly the kind of monitoring I do. The fact is, this stuff fascinates me.

ROBINSON Why? Why are you fascinated by a subject that many people find tedious? What are you seeing that the rest of us are missing?

MaCURDY Welfare is a conundrum--an unlovable dilemma--and I love watching the democratic system wrestle with it. All the options are unattractive, and there's nothing that can change that. You can have less poverty and more welfare. Or you can have more poverty and less welfare. Those are your choices.

ROBINSON As you monitor welfare reform, are there any issues in particular that you'll be watching?

MaCURDY Sure. But I'll need to give you a little background.

I participated in a study on welfare here in California. It was different from most studies in that it looked at families, rather than cases or individuals. It was also different in looking at total family income from all forms of public assistance. What we found challenges some popular conceptions about welfare families.

Our research established that welfare is not a way of life for most participating families and that most families have other sources of income. What we found, in other words, was that the vast majority of welfare families aren't highly dependent on welfare and should be able to adjust well to welfare reform.

But we found two groups that could be hit hard by welfare reform. One group is the families--about half a million of them here in California--that rely on Aid to Families with Dependent Children for more than half their income. The other is families of legal immigrants--about fifty thousand--who could lose more than half their income. It turns out that immigrant families are more than twice as likely as citizen families to live in poverty and more than twice as likely to participate in welfare.

ROBINSON So that's what you'll be watching? Those two groups?

MaCURDY I'll be watching a lot of things, but, yes, I'll be paying special attention to those two groups. As we've already seen, almost a million and a half cases have already been shed from the welfare rolls--the easy cases. But that's not a full or adequate test of welfare reform. The real test is the hard cases.