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Q & A: Social welfare professor discusses new welfare reform bill

– UC Berkeley Media Relations recently sat down with School of Social Welfare professor Neil Gilbert to ask him questions about the new welfare reform bill that recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is making its way through the Senate. Gilbert has been following state and federal policy on welfare reform.

In 1996, an historic welfare reform law was passed that has proven very successful in moving many welfare recipients into the workforce. Last year, Congress began the process of reauthorizing this law and plans to add to it.

Q: What are some of the major changes that will occur if this bill passes?

A: There will be an increase in time for the requirement to engage in work and work-related activities. The increase is 40 hours, up from 30 hours. Also, states will be required to place 70 percent of their welfare caseloads in work or work training, up from 50 percent. And, the House will allot $1.5 billion over five years to promote marriage.

Neil Gilbert
'What it looks and sounds like is we are turning up the heat on people for whom there are no jobs.'
-Neil Gilbert

Q: To what do you attribute the success of the 1996 law?

A: No one imagined, including myself, that this law would be as successful as it was in shrinking the welfare caseload. By the mid '90s, caseloads had declined by 60 percent, which was unprecedented. But we must remember that the economy was booming, so some of this, probably 35-45 percent of the reduction, would have happened anyway.

Also, a fair number of welfare recipients were working, but not reporting their income. And then there was the push-pull effect of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the five-year lifetime limit on the receipt of welfare. The pull of the rising Earned Income Tax Credit created an incentive for many who were working to report their earnings, because the tax credit they received would substantially increase their income - as much as $3,997, in some cases. At the same time, the five-year limit served to push those who could work off the welfare rolls as they sought to save their limited entitlement to welfare for harder times.

Q: Will the new law cost more?

A: Funding hasn't changed. Basically, what it is is tightening, forcing the states to squeeze down more. They've raised the bar on work and are introducing this initiative to promote marriage.

Q: What about the marriage promotion aspect?

A: The United States already has a much higher marriage and fertility rate than most of the advanced industrialized world. There's a remarkable discrepancy in this world today - most European countries have much more family-friendly policies than the United States, yet our marriage and fertility rates are higher. Promoting marriage is basically a good thing. But I don't believe the social policies proposed for premarital education and counseling will make much difference. This initiative is a symbolic gesture.

Q: What do you think of the new proposals to decrease caseloads?

A: Two things have changed, which is why these reforms don't make much sense. One, of course, is the economy. States are running huge deficits. We just don't have the robust economy and opportunities for employment that we had just a short time ago.

The other change concerns the population of welfare recipients. Those who are left on the welfare rolls are hard to employ. They tend to have poor education, limited technical skills, poor cognitive ability - and are plagued by problems of substance abuse. In the meantime, the government says, "Let's raise the bar." Instead of raising the bar, they should look at other things to be done.

Q: What should be done instead?

A: Instead of raising the bar, they should address the issues of how to deal with people who are hard to employ, and what kinds of alternatives, pilot projects or programs are needed? Rather than concentrating on giving people skills, they are sending them to work.

While it's true going to work does help develop skills, the work-first approach works for people who have some amount of competence, but now we are left with people who do not have this competence. The timing is not auspicious for this. We need to think about what to do for these people and remember this is a different population. One thing I would like to see is helping this population with their parenting skills.

Q: With the economy the way it is, should the bar be lowered?

A: I don't think so. There is an argument that says welfare reform has reinforced a new norm, one that says women should be working, and we shouldn't pay people to stay home and care for their children. There is a lot of symbolic meaning to this. Today, most women work. There isn't much sympathy for poor stay-at-home mothers when middle-class mothers need to work. I don't think where the bar was set is bad, and lowering it would send a signal that welfare reform was just a bluff. It's a matter of shifting gears. We've dealt with one group, now it's time to deal with another.

What it looks and sounds like is we are turning up the heat on people for whom there are no jobs. The answer is not more of the same. It's curious, in a sense, when you have had a reasonable degree of success, the best you can come up with is 'push harder,' when, in fact, common sense will tell you that those who went off were better equipped than those who remain. Government officials should turn their minds to how to deal with this group. There is no neat solution.