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Welfare reform-It's time to take it one step futher

August 10, 1999

Since federal welfare reform took effect two years ago, the number of cases on the West Virginia rolls have dropped from 36,691 to about 10,000. That's the fifth highest reduction in the nation, a fact which the average citizen applauds. So why aren't the state's elected officials happier about the issue?

A group of state leaders interviewed as part of an Associated Press feature series on welfare reform told AP that, in the words of House Speaker Bob Kiss, "Anybody who thinks we're out of the woods is mistaken."

Kiss and other are cautious about declaring victory because they're not sure what happened to those who left the welfare rolls. Unanswered questions include: What sorts of jobs did former recipients get, and how much did they pay? And perhaps just as important, what sort of benefits did those jobs provide?

To get those answers, studies of former recipients have been launched by state and federal agencies, including West Virginia University, the Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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What many lawmakers fear is that the money saved as result of welfare reform will be used for other purposes, when there may be a real need to direct some of it to job training, day care and medical assistance.

Herald-Mail staffers have talked to those who run food banks and medical facilities for the poor, and though their stories aren't the scientific studies Congress and state lawmakers need to make decisions, the tales they tell suggest that the first jobs people get after leaving the welfare rolls pay the minimum wage, with few benefits.

Because the national economy is healthy now, just about anybody who wants to work can get a job. But what happens to minimum-wage workers without additional training if the economy experiences a setback? Is it possible that without additional training for those workers, the country could see a new swelling of the welfare rolls?

The progress made so far has been remarkable, far beyond what anyone predicted. The challenge now, which West Virginia's top officials seem to recognize, is to shore up those gains, so they don't disappear the next time the economy takes a downturn.

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