"How come I don't see pencils moving? Write this down."
Todd McGee, an interviewer for the Iowa Department of Employment Services, is serving up a reality check to 22 new welfare recipients in Des Moines. He explains that Iowa will help them find jobs, and provide some rewards if they succeed - including the right to keep a good portion of the income they earn without immediately losing benefits.But with the carrot comes a big stick: If their effort to find work is deemed wanting, their welfare payments will come to an abrupt end.
"Don't confuse the state with big-hearted, warm, kind individuals," McGee says. "Welfare reform means nothing else but `Get off welfare and get a job.' "
That may oversimplify Iowa's Family Investment Program, one of the nation's longest-running and most comprehensive efforts at converting welfare to workfare. But it does capture the spirit of welfare reform all over America in the mid-1990s.
Wherever you look, the formula for ending "welfare as we know it" is coming down to the simple notion that welfare recipients not only can find jobs but must find them - and fast.
Will it succeed? The answer may depend on your definition of success. If you're satisfied simply to see more welfare recipients working, the answer is a modest yes - for some recipients, albeit a minority.
Evidence from Iowa and several other experiments indicates that about one-third of welfare recipients can be moved into jobs fairly easily. But if the goal is to make these people self-sufficient, the prospects are less encouraging.
Workfare proponents contend that welfare recipients would move beyond the fringes of the labor market into the mainstream if they could get more education, more help paying for child care and, for some, more intensive counseling and social services. But all that costs money, and governors and legislators are looking to welfare reform as a way to reduce spending, not as a reason to increase it.
Virtually everywhere workfare is being tried, it is caught between these contradictory goals. "We want to reduce dependency on welfare and reduce poverty - and we want to do it all at low cost," says David Butler, a welfare analyst at Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. in New York. "We can't have it all."
Still, workfare is getting increased emphasis as more and more states consider limiting how long anybody can receive welfare over a lifetime. Twenty-four states already impose some time limit, and Congress seems likely to include such limits in any welfare reform bill it writes in the near future.
The trouble is, pushing welfare recipients to work doesn't guarantee that they can support their families.
Ronda Brumfield, a 25-year-old mother of two, is a good example. To fulfill her work requirement under Iowa's program, she puts in about 30 hours a week at a Burger King in Des Moines. Most of her roughly $140 in weekly pay goes to cover child care costs.
She still depends on welfare to pay her rent, utilities and other living expenses. "She's working, but she can't earn enough to get off welfare," says Dawn Francis, program coordinator at the family support center of Oakridge Neighborhood, a low-income housing project where Brumfield lives.
Brumfield is luckier than some. Her job pays $5.50 an hour, 85 cents more than the state minimum wage - and $1.25 more than the $4.25 federal minimum wage that President Clinton and congressional Democrats have been pushing to increase.
But an analysis by Iowa State University suggests she would have to work 40 hours a week at $5.42 an hour just to pay for food, housing and other basic necessities. That doesn't include the cost of transportation, day care and other expenses associated with holding a job. Nor does it include the cost of health insurance.
To escape welfare entirely, according to the Iowa Department of Human Services, a mother such as Brumfield would need an hourly wage of $8.87 for a 40-hour-a-week job.
Like many welfare mothers, Brumfield wants to learn a skill that would lead to higher paying employment. But despite its commitment to finance such training, Iowa says it can't afford to help her. Early in 1996, almost 4,100 welfare recipients were on a waiting list for post-secondary education benefits; new applicants were told they stand little chance of getting aid for years to come.
Brumfield might be able to find other ways to pay for schooling - Pell grants from the federal government, for instance. But she still would need help paying for child care. Once again, however, money problems are keeping the state from providing all the help it promised. While Iowa spends more than $20 million annually to help low-income families meet child care costs, it can't keep pace with the exploding demand.
Then, too, the state is reluctant to give welfare mothers help that is unavailable to other low-wage, low-skill workers.
"We have to look at whether we are delivering advantages to the welfare population that aren't available to the rest of the population," says Norma Hohlfeld, a job training coordinator for the state.
Back at the orientation for welfare families in Des Moines, counselor McGee puts it more bluntly: "There are thousands and thousands of people out there who go to work every day and hate their jobs - and the state wants you to be one of them."
"Just kidding," he adds hastily. But nobody laughs.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)