President Clinton's welfare proposal is no cure for the system's maladies, according to Utah's Human Services officials and advocates for the poor.
While they often disagree on policies and priorities, the officials and advocates agreed Utah's welfare reform project is better - and more likely to succeed - than the plan Clinton unveiled in general terms Tuesday."I think a lot of people who have been looking at welfare reform in Utah have arrived at quite different conclusions (from Clinton's) about what needs to be done," said Shirley Weathers of Utah Issues, an advocacy group for the poor. "The centerpiece ought to be reduction in poverty. Poverty is the culprit; it's the cause of welfare."
Clinton proposes a two-year limit on welfare payments and promises to employ those who can't find work in government-sponsored community service. He also wants a "cap" on payments for children born to a welfare family. Critics say women are having more children for larger grants. But Utah experts say the benefit - about $60 more - is not enough to entice women to have more children.
"It appears to us that some of the things he is proposing are based on stereotypes about parents and families on welfare," Weathers said. "We (in Utah) hope, over time, good information will change the face of what eventually is passed."
"In the debate about welfare reform, we need to ensure that we are developing reform that will really enable women and children on welfare to achieve economic independence," said Cheryl Ek of JEDI Women. "We don't want welfare to be a way of life, but we are concerned that elements of President Clinton's plan are going to do more harm than good."
JEDI Women, a group advocating programs and services for low-income people, called on the president to reform the system, not the people. The group, whose name stands for Justice, Economic Dignity and Independence, gathered at a Human Services office Tuesday to challenge the proposal, which was unveiled in Kansas City. Jan Hansen, director of the Office of Family Support, which administers Aid to Families with Dependent Children in Utah, agrees the Clinton plan is flawed. The two-year time restriction, she said, will encourage people who could become independent in less time to "procrastinate." And it "punishes" people who may not be able to make it off welfare that fast.
"We in Utah have some problems with it; we don't think there needs to be a time limit. The majority of the clients will go off assistance far before the two-year limit. We think that when we put a two-year limit on it, it lets people procrastinate for that long. And some people can't make it off in two years; they have too many barriers to overcome. That punishes those people."
The two-year cap on education also limits options. Even someone with a high school diploma and a two-year degree isn't guaranteed a good-paying job, said Kelly Brereton, JEDI Women. What happens, she wondered, if a woman uses her two years on welfare getting her high school diploma? Where does she go from there?
In Clinton's proposal, people who cannot find jobs will be put into government-sponsored work forces. Hansen sees irony there: Welfare would be limited to 24 months, but people could be on a works project "forever."
"We have problems with that because it's expensive," she said. "And if we have to match funds for the works projects, cost could go up instead of down.
"If we are required to pay minimum wage, people would work very few hours a week (to `earn' their grants)."
"Inner cities don't reflect Utah," said Deeda Seed, JEDI Women. "We have a lot more hope here."
Weathers said Utah is in a good position to help shape the welfare-reform debate.
"We're a Western state with a good economy. Our approach to welfare reform - because it's focused on reducing poverty and protecting children - seems to be heading in the right direction," she said. "And it's a transferable approach so we're hoping we can be heard in the national forum."