Don't Back Off On Workfare

Just when Washington finally gets around to proposing a serious welfare-to-work plan, no one likes it anymore. The Clinton Administration's plan to move people from welfare to work is taking heat from all sides.

The left has traditionally opposed workfare, with welfare advocates and municipal unions condemning the concept as both unfair and threatening to existing jobs. The big surprise is on the right, with conservatives who once believed that work was essential to ending welfare now arguing that illegitimacy is the real problem.

Originally, workfare was based on the belief that welfare cut off mothers and their children from the world of work. Work would raise people from poverty, provide adult models of responsibility for children, and cut down on illegitimacy. All this would curb crime.

The fear, however, is that a huge community service program will be necessary to find jobs for millions of people. The typical welfare recipient is a 22-year-old mother who barely reads at the sixth-grade level. She needs a government-subsidized job, opponents argue.

Maybe not. The goal of workfare is to provide a transition to private-sector jobs. Despite numerous small-scale experiments, no one really knows the best way to do this. We do know that immigrants, many with poor education and little English, find hundreds of thousands of jobs in America every year.

What's needed now is for Washington to provide modest funding for state programs that require public service in exchange for welfare, use public service as a bridge to private jobs, or move people off welfare directly into the real economy. The goal is to get people on welfare--and their children--into the world of work as quickly as possible. With training and child care, the most able and ambitious will be able to move out and up. Others may require community jobs. But all would be required to do real work and get paid for it.

It now costs Washington $60 billion a year to provide welfare payments, food stamps, and medical care to poor mothers and their children. A fraction of that would get the workfare ball rolling. In a $1.5 trillion budget, tight as it is, this money must be found.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.