The Clinton-era plan to "change welfare as we know it" has been a dramatic, if qualified, success, helping to transform millions of people who had lived off others' taxes into working taxpayers. Under California's version, the 1998 CalWORKS program, the numbers dropped by almost half, to about 475,000 cases from a 1997 high of nearly 732,000. A booming economy helped by generating jobs at record pace. But everyone agreed that the real test would come later, after those most employable or most eager to work had moved on and those without skills or, perhaps, motivation or with addictions or children needing care hit the new five-year lifetime limit on benefits.
An estimated 50,000 low-income Californians said goodbye to welfare as the new year started, but they weren't toasting new jobs. Now, as deadlines set in during a flat economy and double-digit government deficits, Congress needs to address changing circumstances by making the law more flexible -- not less, as the Bush administration proposes.
The House and Senate, unable to reach agreement in September, postponed renewing the 1996 welfare reform law until spring. House Republicans, like Bush, want to toughen the rules, requiring states to move seven rather than three of 10 recipients into jobs within five years and cutting block grants to states that fail. The new goals would require parents to work longer hours, but without a matching increase in child-care subsidies. The administration's proposal also favors controversial experiments to promote marriage -- which, of course, won't do a lick to help the increasing number of impoverished two-parent families.
In 1996, Congress was able to reinvigorate the moribund, 60-year-old welfare program by setting reasonable goals, then giving states resources and relative autonomy. Any amendments should build on this successful formula. Why not allow states even more flexibility to, say, extend the deadline for throwing someone off welfare if he or she enrolls in training programs to fill specific jobs?
Los Angeles has earmarked welfare-to-work money to train nursing aides, orderlies, home-care aides, medical records technicians and pharmacy workers, all in demand. The program not only puts welfare recipients to work but it does so in neighborhoods that desperately need the services. That is the kind of innovation that should be allowed by a president who, after all, favors state autonomy over federal mandates.