In his latest effort to make last year’s sweeping welfare-reform law work, President Clinton announced Thursday that the federal government will hire 10,000 people from welfare rolls during the next four years.
Clinton hopes private employers across the country will emulate this step in order to meet his goal of moving 2 million people off welfare and into jobs over the next four years. He will hold a White House conference for business leaders next month to encourage them to help.
But huge practical obstacles still loom between Clinton’s goal and successful welfare reform, analysts warn.
For example, some 11.4 million people were on welfare as of January. Even if Clinton succeeds in reducing that number by 2 million, that leaves over 9 million still on welfare, and the new law limits their lifetime eligibility for benefits to five years. What happens to them?
Clinton emphasized the positive when announcing his hiring plan at the first full Cabinet meeting of his second term. He emphasized that welfare rolls declined by 2.8 million people - 20 percent - during his first term. He credited a strong economy for that, as do independent experts, along with ambitious state welfare-reform efforts that his administration encouraged.
To move the next 2 million people off welfare, Clinton said, “We have all got to take responsibility to see that the jobs are there.” Toward that end, he announced that his Cabinet officers are taking this first symbolic step.
At his direction, each federal agency has committed itself to hiring a specific number of welfare recipients. The first 8,000 are to be hired within two years, with 2,000 more the next two years.
“These will not be make-work jobs,” Clinton emphasized.
Some 4,000 of them will be door-to-door survey questioners for the Census Bureau. Another 600 will be at the Social Security Administration, 800 at the Veterans Administration, 1,605 at the Defense Department.
Most would be entry-level jobs requiring minimal skills - park and forestry workers, file and mail clerks. The White House itself will hire six - all for clerical work.
“My initial reaction is it’s a good step,” said Gordon Berlin, a senior vice president with the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. in New York, a private research center that monitors programs for the poor.
Yet Berlin raised some concerns.
If the agencies were going to fill those jobs anyway, “who are the people displaced who wouldn’t get them now?”
If the economy continues to grow and add jobs at the robust rate of the past four years, that’s less of a concern, Berlin said. But if not, then he whole welfare-reform crusade will face a daunting challenge.
A second concern is whether welfare dependents can do the work. On that point, Clinton presented two models of reformers’ dreams.
One, Rebecca Rae Wilson, an Iowa mother of two, escaped welfare when hired as a temporary clerk at the Social Security Administration. She will receive an associate degree from a community college next month and plans to get a full bachelor’s degree in business administration.
The second, Tonya JoAnn Graham from Texas, went on welfare as a single parent in 1984. She, too, earned an associate college degree, was hired by SSA in 1989, then got a bachelor’s degree in 1990 from Lubbock Christian College, and now works full-time at SSA.
“These two women are examples that - not just for the government, but for the private and nonprofit sectors as well - if we give people who are on welfare the opportunity, they will do the rest, helping us break the cycle of dependence and make responsibility a way of life,” Clinton said.
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