Thursday, May 25, 2006

Left Behind

What immigration reform is today, welfare reform was to 1995 and 1996: the big hot-button issue. Both sides of the political spectrum felt compelled to "fix" what ideologues to the right believed was the worst scandal in America and rushed to do so. Now, ten years after the welfare reform, states are beginning to realize that some Americans who had been on the welfare rolls for years were there for a reason. This editorial appeared a few days ago in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

In 1999, three years into the nation's landmark experiment with welfare to work, Ramsey County authorities noticed that about one-quarter of their welfare recipients were simply not making headway in the job market, despite a stern message from the state and months of coaching from job counselors.

They walked across the hall to the county's mental health unit and asked if a couple of psychologists could interview some of these struggling adults. What the experts found was startling: A mix of mental illness and low IQ so incapacitating that some of the clients couldn't cook a meal for their children, write a grocery list or remember to change their clothes at night.

Ramsey County's findings weren't unique. Since Congress overhauled welfare in 1996, several studies have found that perhaps one-fourth of adults on cash assistance have crippling cognitive problems, physical disabilities or a combination of the two.

... In December Congress reauthorized the 1996 welfare law, setting the stage for phase two of welfare reform, and the federal government is in the process of writing tough new work targets that Washington will impose on states and individual welfare recipients.

The premise behind work targets is appealing: Just tell welfare recipients to go get a job. That was the thrust of the 1996 law, and for most welfare adults, it worked reasonably well. The number of families on cash assistance has fallen from 4 million to less than 2 million, the sharpest decline on record, and some 2 million poor, single mothers have found jobs.

But simple mandates didn't work -- and won't work -- for the sort of clients that Ramsey County discovered. If you don't have the mental capacity to read a bus schedule or remember your own address, you need more than a few mornings in job-search class.

This month dozens of Minnesota welfare officials, together with five members of the state's congressional delegation, sent letters to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, urging it to give states the flexibility to serve this heterogeneous caseload.

"What troubles me is that welfare reform got started because society was worried about long-term welfare recipients. But now that we've identified who they are, we haven't designed a welfare system that meets their needs," [ LaDonna Pavetti, a respected poverty scholar ] says.
[Emphasis added]

The editorial described a class of people who were left behind and hidden by the rhetoric of "welfare queens" and "intergenerational welfare recipients." Many of these people can, with an enormous amount of training and effort, be placed in sheltered workshop environments, but there will be some who cannot. What about them? Do we simply write them off?

The governor of Minnesota and other governors are urging the federal government to take this group into consideration when writing the new rules for the program. Hopefully some flexibility will be given to the states on the issue so that none of these Americans are left without assistance.

Unintended consequences are often the result of ill-considered actions. As I implied earlier, immigration reform and welfare reform have something in common.


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