Welfare Reform

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(Host) Last fall, a study measuring the success of welfare reform around the country gave Vermont poor marks – and commentator John McClaughry says it isn’t hard to figure out why.

(McClaughry) On October 19, the libertarian Cato Institute released a study rating the 50 states on their progress in implementing the welfare-to-work programs required by a law signed by President Clinton in 1996. The study found that the highest-performing states required recipients to actually go to work or face the loss of benefits.

How did Vermont do? Said the report, “Vermont received the lowest of the failing grades including the lowest grade on implementation of structure reforms required of a successful state welfare program.” On a scale of 100, Vermont’s grade of 21 was 15 points below that of the 49th state, Missouri.

Here’s why Vermont fared so badly: From 1994 to mid-2001, Vermont operated under a Federal waiver that preceded the 1996 act. Thus, for the first four years of the period Cato studied, Vermont was playing by different – and more liberal – rules. For most of that period, Vermont’s program contrived lots of excuses for recipients to avoid actually working. One third of the caseload was simply exempted from any work requirement. For the others, caseworkers had to determine that each person was “job ready”. If not, he or she went into an assortment of readiness, education, training, preparation and job search programs instead of actually performing work.

Sanctions for refusal to work kicked in only after 15 months of not working for two parent families and 30 months for single parents. With the expiration of the waiver program, Vermont’s sanctions have been significantly toughened. But after giving due credit for successes in helping many people to become self-sufficient, it’s clear that Vermont’s liberal policies during most of the period studied caused the state to fare very poorly compared to the “tough love” policies of other states, notably A-rated Wisconsin.

Wisconsin’s “Work First” program simply put applicants to work, and they learned early that the better they performed, the sooner they would move up to better jobs. Wisconsin enforced stiff sanctions and tight time limits for people not interested in working. As a result, 67% of Wisconsin’s 2002 caseload were actually working. In Vermont, only 26% were actually working.

A decade of welfare reform in the states has proven that demanding policies to help poor people get on the road to self-sufficiency can succeed. What it takes is a clear-headed focus on the importance of achieving self-sufficiency through productive work, and the determination to cut off benefits to people who could work but would rather not.

Every Vermonter descended from hard working French Canadian farmers, Italian granite workers, Welsh slate miners, Irish railroad builders, and all sorts of other Yankee forebears should instinctively agree with that conclusion.

This is John McClaughry. Thanks for listening.

John McClaughry is president of the Ethan Allan Institute, a Vermont policy, research and education organization. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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