- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 25, 2001

With an economic slowdown, job layoffs stemming from the September 11 terror attacks and the arrival of a new five-year time limit on welfare benefits, "we're about to put the welfare law to the real test," Peter Edelman recently told a seminar on welfare and work.
"I'm very worried," said Mr. Edelman, a Georgetown University law professor and former Clinton administration official.
Welfare recipients, he said, are losing jobs but aren't likely to qualify for unemployment insurance and may be exhausting their 60 months of welfare checks.
Other welfare watchers at last week's Employment Policies Institute seminar were more sanguine about welfare-to-work efforts.
Welfare reform caused a "sea change" in the system, said Peter Cove, founder of America Works, which has helped thousands of welfare recipients get jobs. Welfare stopped being "an entitlement to welfare as long as you want it," and now many people are used to the idea of going to work, he said.
The focus on work wasn't changed by September 11, Mr. Cove added. Before the attacks, many trainees took jobs in the hospitality, tourism and food service areas, he said. "Now we're placing those people in security companies around the city."
"We're going to make it through this," said Fred G. Kramer, director of community employment and training at Marriott International, which has employed thousands of former welfare recipients.
"We don't want to lose the folks who work for us. So you've got to do what you can to take care of them," he said, adding that Marriott employees don't lose benefits even if they work only part-time.
Welfare reform, passed in the halcyon days of 1996, has entered its most challenging economic environment.
In October, unemployment jumped to 5.4 percent, the highest since December 1996, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The number of newly unemployed persons including some affected by the September 11 attacks rose by 401,000 to 3.2 million in October. Hotels lost 46,000 jobs, air transportation lost 42,000 jobs and the retail trade, including restaurants, lost 81,000 jobs.
These industries had been hiring people in welfare-to-work programs, but are now unable to do so, said program leaders.
Moreover, many welfare recipients may be facing a five-year time limit on federal cash welfare.
According to an Urban Institute report, by the end of the year 22 states, including Maryland, can end federal cash welfare to recipients.
The 1996 law allows states to exempt up to 20 percent of their caseloads from the time limits, but some people, like Mr. Edelman, fear the worst.
The law was "at best designed for prosperity," said the professor, who resigned his post in the Clinton administration to protest President Clinton's signing of the reform in 1996.
Due to September 11-related layoffs, there is likely to be a substantial increase in the welfare caseload next year, but it is important to keep a work-based welfare system, Heritage Foundation welfare analyst Robert Rector said at the seminar.
In the past, he said, the welfare caseload rose regardless of boom times and recessions. What changed in 1996 and led to caseloads falling by half, he said, was that the welfare system sent a message that said, "Yes, we will give you aid and the aid is unequivocally based on work or some other constructive activity."
As far as welfare families being pushed off welfare by time limits, Mr. Rector said that the limits, while important, are "porous." States have flexibility in enforcing them, he said, and it is highly unlikely that any state will deny benefits to welfare families who genuinely want to work or do community service.
Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, said that welfare recipients should benefit from the post-September 11 "feeling of solidarity" to "help people struggling to do the right thing."
This economic situation might also lead to an overdue "modernizing" of the unemployment insurance system so it will include part-time workers. When tough times come, Mr. Marshall said, "I don't want [welfare recipients] to think that they should fall back on the welfare rolls. I would rather change dramatically the unemployment insurance system so that they would fall there."


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