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The welfare dilemma

February 10, 1997

With newly-elected Gov. Cecil Underwood moving deliberately (some would say slowly) to take the reins of state government, the agenda for West Virginia's upcoming legislative session appears light, with one exception. Making the state conform to federal welfare reform laws may be the challenge of the decade.

Under the federal law, after Jan. 1 West Virginia citizens are limited to five years' worth of benefits in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. Beginning this year, 25 percent of those currently receiving aid must participate in some sort of job-related activity.

So what's the problem? Well, in many parts of the state, the jobs just aren't there. The relative affluence of the Eastern Panhandle leads many to forget that the state's jobless rate - a seasonably adjusted 7.2 percent - is third highest in the nation after Alaska and Washington, D.C.

If the private sector can't provide the jobs, then government may have to, at taxpayers' expense. Not participating in the program is not an option, because if the state fails to meet federal targets, it will have to pay for the program using only state funds.

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Then there's the child-care issue. If women with small children can't get child care, they'll be unable to participate in the training programs that will lift them out of welfare dependency and the cycle will go on and on. That's another cost for the state.

There are two choices for state lawmakers, since, according to Associated Press reports out of the state capital, there's only $80 million in new revenues to deal with and $52 million of that is already spoken for.

Lawmakers can either raises taxes (never a popular option) or they can begin an aggressive new campaign to recruit companies that can provide the needed jobs.

We recommend the latter, although given the state's lack of cash, forgiving taxes may be the only "perk" the state has to offer. Better to lose some tax revenue now than to miss the boat on welfare reform.

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