Welfare Reform


Stephen E. Auslander, Editor Michael E. Pulitzer,  Publisher

James M Kiser,  Editorial Page Editor


April 10, 1997

Getting Real on welfare

The state Department of Economic Security - recognizing ``strong welfare  reform'' won't work where no jobs exist - acted humanely this spring when it  requested waivers on new food stamp limits for 11 of Arizona's 15 counties

Now the Legislature needs to add such realism to its welfare reform.

To date, legislators have indulged mainly in fantasies about the world of  work and the ability of many aid recipients to land jobs.

Despite unemployment surpassing 30 percent in Yuma County and 20 percent in  Santa Cruz County, Republican leaders have steadfastly refused to adapt their  unrealistic and inflexible work requirements and aid cut-offs to local  conditions.

A grossly inadequate training program tragically weakens the state package.  And when Democrats like Rep. Paul Newman of Bisbee propose adjustments for  regions lacking a meaningful industrial base, they are told people who live in  such places should simply move to the cities where there are jobs.

This has been the consistent, harshly abstract insistence of Sen. Tom  Patterson, R-Phoenix, and others, who oppose any adjustment of work requirements  anywhere, and for anyone. ``What you're going to do . . . is you're going to  incentivize living in areas where there isn't work,'' was how Patterson put it  in the Star Sunday. Such is the Legislature's rigid, one-size-fits-all recipe  for disaster in rural Arizona, if not elsewhere as well.

Contrast this fixity, however, with DES' pragmatism in adjusting the federal  food stamp program as redefined by President Clinton's national welfare reform.  Acknowledging the diversity of the state's job markets and the deep malaise that  depresses places like Douglas and Ganado, DES has availed itself of federal  willingness to postpone food stamp withdrawals in places where recipients need  extra help in coping with the new rules.

Consequently, the state has very appropriately asked that Washington give  able-bodied food stamp clients in Santa Cruz, Cochise, Yuma and other troubled  counties a year to rearrange their lives instead of the three months the law  mandates before withholding support.

``In areas of high unemployment . . . you may have every intent to work and  simply cannot,'' was the refreshingly real-world observation of DES  administrator Moe Gallegos last week, who gleaned exactly the purpose of  Washington's exemption rule for areas where the unemployment exceeds the  national average by 20 percent. Thus, the state has acted responsibly in  recognizing that in some places - maybe most of Arizona - the jobs just don't  exist to move people off the dole. The only credible course in such places, DES  rightly sees, is to give more time.

The Legislature should emulate that recognition. Lawmakers should look  seriously at adjusting their ideas to local reality, providing more training  programs to rural areas, and doing at least something to stimulate job-creation  in such places. Then Arizona might actually profit from a welfare reform that is  both stringent and constructive