Human Services and area advocacy groups - often quite effective friends and partners - are engaged in a quiet, fairly well-behaved war over welfare reform.

Referred to as "workfare" by legislators who approved the concept, the idea is to get people to work, study or train in exchange for their Aid to Families with Dependent Children grants.The Legislature directed Human Services to apply for a waiver from the federal government for a demonstration project to see whether such a program would work.

At the core of the proposal in its current form is a "two-tier" grant system. A family would receive its current grant level only if the parent was actively involved in the demo. A parent who didn't participate would receive a substantial grant cut.

Originally, officials bandied about a 50 percent cut. They are now discussing a 40 percent, 30 percent or flat $150 penalty for non-participation. The remainder would protect the children the grants are supposed to help, according to Human Services officials.

Welfare reform is moving forward across the country. Wisconsin just received permission to cap its grant after two children.

During a public hearing last week, the battle lines were clear. Most of the people who gathered opposed the project as it's now written - the vast majority because of the two-tier grant.

Representatives from advocacy groups said they applauded efforts to help welfare recipients become self-sufficient but couldn't support the measure because of the "punitive" nature of the two-tiered grant.

The Department of Human Services said the two-tiered grant is needed to make welfare recipients participate. They didn't object to the characterization of that approach as a "big stick," they just said it was necessary.

Many of the people who testified saw things very differently.

Evelyn Johnson worked all of her adult life until she had a severe illness and had to turn to assistance. "I have dreams and goals. I strive for a better life. I don't have horns or a missing gene that causes me to live on welfare," she said. "It is a precarious life on the edge of a cliff. . . . I don't need a big stick. I already have a big stick in my life. It's called poverty."

Joe Duke-Rosati, Salt Lake Community Action Program, believes people will participate "in programs that offer hope." The double-tier robs people of personal power.

Others disagreed as passionately and as eloquently. Dan Dix said welfare started out as a work program years ago. "Welfare became a hand-out," he said, "not because people didn't want to work. It just seemed easier to those handing out the money."

He said that because the advocates can't have everything the way they want it, they are going to try to defeat the whole thing. Even with problems, it's a place to start. "If this goes down the drain, how many years 'til such an opportunity comes around again?"

Cindy Haag, Family Support director, has always spoken persuasively about the project. So have the people on the other side.

I really couldn't disagree with most of them - which made me feel silly, since they couldn't agree. Each had some logic and they all really care about the people who will be affected.

But I had a few objections to the tactics. Neither side wants to give any ground.

Human Services believes it needs clout to make the program work. Opponents believe all people will want to better themselves without what was repeatedly called "coercion."

Both sides ignored anything that didn't fit in with their prepared viewpoints.

Long after Bill Biggs, program specialist, explained that the grant reduction would be 40 percent or less, people were addressing the cruelty of cutting the grant in half.

The draft specifies that dependents ages 16-18 who are not in school must participate or face sanctions. Speakers talked about how detrimental it would be to force school children to work. . . .

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The state did the same thing. I've asked often but never gotten a straight answer to the question: How are you going to cut grants significantly without hurting the children you are supposed to protect?

Over and over I'm told: "That won't happen." Without an explanation, it's a meaningless platitude.

Despite the confusion, one thing is becoming clear: The public mood, for better or worse, is shifting. When times are tough and the national debt's too big to contemplate, welfare makes an easy target.

Welfare reform is going to happen. Since both sides obviously genuinely care about the vulnerable people it will affect, they'd better bury the hatchet - and not in each other.

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