No One Solution for Welfare Reform

Under Gilbert's Plan, Long-Term Aid Recipients Would See More State Involvement

by Patricia McBroom

Hopes of reforming welfare by putting mothers to work is a tough-sounding, quick fix that is bound to fail, according to a Berkeley expert on social welfare who is also a chief evaluator of California's workfare program.

The proposed reforms will cost far more than current aid to families, and they completely ignore the fate of the children, according to Neil Gilbert, Chernin Professor of Social Welfare and co-director of the Family Welfare Research Group here.

Moreover, the suggested reforms do not take into account the diversity of women on welfare, half of whom are at work within two years without help from the government, he said.

Finally, Gilbert said, there are no jobs in the private economy for many of these women, which means that make-work jobs in the public sector must be manufactured.

That is an expensive solution that creates cynicism all around, said Gilbert. He said that the minimum cost of creating a public works job plus providing daycare is $6,300, on top of the $5,000 average payment per year to a family on welfare.

"We've tried this before. We know it doesn't work," said Gilbert, whose experience with family welfare dates to the 1960s when he worked for New York City's public welfare department. Recently, his research group at Berkeley evaluated California's GAIN (Greater Avenues for Independence) program, which provides training and employment for welfare mothers.

Gilbert has brought his research and experience together in a new book, "Welfare Justice," slated for publication in February 1995 by Yale University Press.

"GAIN taught us that a two-year limit is unrealistic for the people who are difficult to employ," said Gilbert. Meanwhile, many other women don't need a workfare program.

National studies have reached similar conclusions about the diversity of circumstances under which mothers receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

In his book, Gilbert shows that 50 percent of welfare mothers use AFDC for up to two years, perhaps because of sickness, divorce, unemployment or disability, but then get off on their own. Many of these women get married; others are well enough educated and trained to find their own jobs. For this group, welfare is a safety net that works, said Gilbert.

At the other extreme, 17 percent of welfare mothers have been receiving aid for eight years or more and are relatively hard-core, said Gilbert. Often becoming mothers when they were teen-agers, these long-term recipients have an average sixth-grade reading level. Most need a basic education in math and literacy. A high percentage are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and their children are more at risk of abuse and neglect than are children in other families, he said.

"These are very serious problems. You can't just put these women on the job market." Experience has shown that a two-year welfare limit proposed by some lawmakers is not long enough to prepare these women for employment.

The other 30 percent of mothers on welfare lie somewhere between these two extremes, having used AFDCfor two to eight years, according to Gilbert.

Altogether, AFDC accounts for only about one percent of the federal budget. "There is a lot of fury about a relatively small item," he said.

Though Gilbert is highly pessimistic that a two-year work-education program will make a significant difference in reducing the size or cost of welfare, he does believe that welfare reform can be used to dissuade some unmarried teens from having children.

His solution is to impose a level of social control on long-term recipients that would hopefully make them better mothers, while also making welfare unattractive to those who could work.

Beginning with the notion that many hard-core recipients are not competent as mothers or employees, Gilbert would institute reforms aimed at rescuing the next generation--the children--from poverty and neglect.

This can be done, he believes, by increasing public surveillance of welfare mothers so that long-term recipients become essentially "wards of the state." The longer they are on welfare, the more extensive the social controls, from mandatory parental education and home-health visits, up to and including management of the family budget.

"Instead of resorting to make-work and forced labor, we should be thinking about how to manage dependency," said Gilbert.

"People in need of care will always be with us. We can throw them out on the streets and look even more like Calcutta than we do now. Or we can agree that there is a level of dependency here that will not be resolved and aim at the coming generation," he said.

Gilbert strongly faults the current debate for ignoring the plight of children on welfare.

"Every helpless infant born into these circumstances should be protected. We ought be concerned more about protecting those children than somehow putting these women into the marketplace," he said.


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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