Economics Update (April-June 1998)

Edelman Scrutinizes Recent
Welfare Reform Efforts

A war on the poor of the United States is how Peter Edelman, a welfare, poverty and juvenile justice expert, described welfare reform efforts in a recent speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Edelman, a professor of law at Georgetown University who has served in all three branches of the U.S. government, also touched on a variety of other social issues, such as job skills and job retention programs, that he believes should be included in a national debate on poverty.

Welfare Reform

Edelman acknowledged the need for welfare reform but cautioned that recent reform efforts have only moved numbers of people off welfare rolls and have not really addressed poverty issues.

Many states moved away from job skills programs toward programs that impose sanctions on welfare recipients in efforts to move people off the welfare rolls, Edelman said. Many people consider welfare reform a success because approximately 3 million people were eliminated from welfare programs nationwide since the early 1990s.

The problem with that figure, said Edelman, is that no strong data exist to show how many people eliminated from welfare rolls have gone to work. Some sources estimate less than 50 percent, and Edelman worries that there are not enough jobs to go around in some areas of the country, particularly in inner cities and rural areas.

Other Concerns

Edelman also voiced concern that many of the people finding jobs are still not able to move above the poverty level. "Even in Silicon Valley," he said, "40 percent of the jobs don't pay enough to get a mom and kids out of poverty."

He called for policymakers to focus on poverty issues and on helping people retain their jobs. The U.S. government should expand funding to include more programs that provide child care and transportation services for people who have left the welfare rolls and found jobs.

Any national debate on poverty issues should also address the widening wage discrepancy between classes, said Edelman. In the United States the top 1 percent of the population earns as much as the bottom 35 percent. Two decades ago these figures were 1 percent and 20 percent, respectively, he said.

The test for this age, he concluded, is how society deals with meeting the needs of the people who have too little.

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