Welfare reform proves to be worthy effort

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Welfare reform was the wild frontier of American politics five years ago.

At that time, everybody agreed something had to be done to end the culture of learned helplessness that infected a segment of our nation's population.

And while most welfare beneficiaries even then were on and off government assistance as the low-wage jobs came and went, some bore children who, it seemed, always would depend on taxpayers for their livelihoods, as would their children's children.

The question became how to end the cycle. Eventually, a bipartisan answer emerged in Washington: a five-year limit on cash benefits, more commonly known as "the check."

For those five years, the beneficiaries could receive day-care subsidies, housing assistance, medical care, education grants and more, but there was a purpose for those benefits. They had to be used as a springboard into gainful employment.

Some liberals wailed. It took more than five years to get the country into this mess, some said, and it would take more than five to fix it. Some conservatives thought the plan was too generous.

But here we are, a nation staring at a ticking welfare clock. The final alarm will sound in July.

And for Cape Girardeau County, the solution reached five years ago was as close to ideal as anything the government does.

In June 1997, 1,286 families in the county relied on cash benefits every month. By January of this year, the number had plummeted to 481.

And the number of families who will likely be forcibly booted from welfare when their clocks run out?

Only four.

That's four families out of the original 1,286 who, for some reason, couldn't manage to get a job for at least part of the time in five years.

Getting a job stops the clock, so there could be other families whose benefits will run out later. But for now, they are on the way to self-sufficiency.

As much as this says about the government's ability to address social malaise, it says even more about the people -- 96 percent of them women -- who overcame the problems that landed them on government assistance.

Many suffered a lack of self-esteem. Some emerged from marriages with battered bodies and spirits. Their parents were disinterested in education, leaving them without a love of learning.

They deserve our admiration and support as they continue to build their lives and make contributions to the system that once gave them a lift.

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