Welfare reform: is it working? That question was posed in Sunday's Deseret News and, as might be expected, the answer is not clear cut. That's because statistics represent people, not things. And what works for one person may not work for another.

Generally, what we said in March still holds, that Utah officials are to be commended for operating one of the few welfare systems that actually improves the financial condition of the poor.Utah mirrors the rest of the nation in that its families are coming off welfare in record numbers. Utah welfare rolls fell from 15,785 in July 1995 to 9,851 this May. Nationally, welfare rolls are falling by 200,000 a month and are at their lowest level since 1970.

Taken on the whole, that's excellent news. Generally speaking, the fewer people on welfare the better.

But the goal of getting people off welfare needs to be coupled with responsible alternatives to being on it.

Where do those 200,000 people who leave the welfare rolls each month wind up? Ideally they all now have decent jobs. In reality, likely some of them have exchanged welfare for a more desperate existence that drives them further into poverty.

Helping people with multiple barriers - such as a lack of child care, lack of education or a mental illness - get off public assistance is a difficult task. These are people who need intensive and perhaps long-term services and help with transportation, education, life skills, literacy and self-confidence.

Another concern is providing jobs that will lead to upward mobility. As expressed by Gina Cornia, the welfare reform specialist at Utah Issues, there is a fear that in the rush to keep families moving off welfare rolls, they are pushed into entry-level jobs with little future.

The keys for those on as well as off welfare are education and training. It might be better to steer someone into the education corridors for awhile as opposed to pushing them into an entry-level job situation.

State law imposes a 36-month limit for receiving welfare benefits. For some families there is concern that may not be enough. Given the current situation, Utah officials are doing the right thing by reviewing the cases of those families that have used 18 months of that 36-month limit to assess how their needs can be better met.

That kind of effort needs to continue and Utah officials need to be vigilant and flexible as new welfare challenges arise.