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Clinton Applauds Dropping Number of Welfare Recipients

By James Gerstenzang
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- CHICAGO

President Clinton on Tuesday extolled a substantial drop in the United States’ welfare rolls, even as some Democratic critics and policy analysts complained that onetime welfare families are still suffering.

The White House issued statistics showing that 6.7 million fewer people received welfare benefits last March than at the start of Clinton’s first term, a drop of 48 percent .

The decline was speeded by landmark welfare-to-work legislation enacted in 1996, the result of a White House compromise with the Republicans in Congress, who had pressed the issue for years. But Clinton views the reform as a major Democratic policy triumph, and a centerpiece of his own legacy.

So at a conference here to help businesses hire welfare recipients, he urged Republicans in Congress to “finish the job” and not rob state welfare block grants to pay for a proposed $792 billion, 10-year tax cut.

“I think that would be a mistake,” he said. “The welfare rolls have been cut in half; they’re at their lowest level in 32 years ... To finish the job, we have to recognize that ... in every state, there are still people who could move from welfare to work if they had more training, if they had transportation, if they had child care.”

Encouraging employers to hire even more workers from among those on welfare, Clinton said: “In this era of labor shortages, we must not forget that welfare recipients can be a rich pool of untapped talent -- people who are good for the bottom line.”

But on the floor of the U.S. Senate, in the think tanks of Washington, and, tellingly, here on the streets of Chicago where the impact is being felt, those close to the policy -- and practice -- of welfare reform cited other statistics.

The drop in people on welfare, said Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., is not the central issue. The key, he said, is that “we’ve seen a very teeny reduction in poverty.”

The White House focus on the success of encouraging single mothers off the dole and into the labor market “begs the question of what kind of jobs at what kind of wages,” Wellstone said in an interview. “The vast majority of these jobs are barely above minimum wages and the mothers are still poor.”

Here in Chicago, William Leavy, executive director of the Greater West Town Community Development Project, has had firsthand experience watching the efforts to turn welfare recipients into workers.