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State Must Find The Real Deadbeats

It’s open season on welfare moms. They attend public forums and the audience boos them. Strangers see them cash their public assistance checks and sneer, “Happy Mother’s Day.” A sweetsounding woman in her 80s calls the newspaper with her solution to the welfare crisis: “Sterilize those lazy women.”

Every six months or so, our society selects a group to trash without any worry of political correctness. It was blondes a few years back, then white males, then Christian Conservatives and now welfare moms are in the trash spotlight.

So maybe it’s a good thing welfare reform is most likely dead this legislative season in Washington state. Talks between Senate and House negotiators collapsed last week. Legislators couldn’t agree on how long welfare recipients should collect benefits. The Republicandominated House wanted full benefits to end after two years with an extension, at a reduced rate, of 18 months if no jobs are available. The Senate’s proposal would allow families to collect benefits for 3 1/2 and reduced benefits for an additional 18 months.

No one disputes that our welfare system is in need of a major overhaul. The state bill did require that welfare recipients either work, go to school, learn job skills or do community service. Who can argue with the logic behind those requirements?

But waiting until next session could be a blessing in disguise. It will give legislators more time to figure out the answers to the tricky questions that must be answered if welfare reform will truly work.

The questions: How can the state better collect money from noncustodial parents to recoup some of the money it gives out to women on assistance? The U.S. Census Bureau reported last week that only a quarter of parents without custody make full childsupport payments. And the programs that truly help women stay off welfare - education, counseling, child-care support - is there enough money to fund them? Without the programs, welfare reform will fail.

Waiting until next year offers another plus. It gives women on public assistance, and the programs that help them, more time to prepare for change. Welfare mothers will be required to take charge of their lives, and their progress will be monitored. The time is now for welfare moms to work - hard - on acquiring job and life skills.

Finally, waiting a while longer gives legislators a chance to meet and talk with welfare moms. Public assistance recipients traveled to Olympia this session to testify at hearings, but everyone is on their best behavior in those situations. Legislators need to walk into the lives of welfare moms, meet their children, listen to their stories, ask their advice. Get beyond the stereotypes that lead to trashing.

A 27-year-old mother of two enrolled in Project Self-Sufficiency, a Spokane program for low-income mothers, wrote this message to legislators recently: “I wasn’t always on welfare. I was taught a work ethic. Believe you me, this is a temporary solution for me, not a career. I only want a chance to educate myself, set a positive example for my children and better all our lives. So please, before you judge me, learn about who I really am.”

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Rebecca Nappi/For the editorial board

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