Question: In two years since welfare reform was enacted, millions of Americans have left the welfare rolls. But a recent survey shows whites leaving welfare much more quickly than blacks or Hispanics. Those two minority groups now outnumber whites on welfare by 2 to 1. Should welfare policy be amended?
Bonnie Erbe: The growing racial imbalance among those on welfare is not good news. Race already is the most dicey, divisive issue in American politics. Some analysts fear with fewer whites on welfare, political support for the program could erode to the point where the program might be abolished entirely, leaving the most desolate Americans with no social safety net.Welfare reform needs modification to include a new component for those at the very bottom of society. That component is education. How many Ph.D.s or college graduates need welfare? The answer: virtually none. Census Bureau figures compiled in 1994, two years before welfare reform became law, showed only 33 percent of whites on welfare lacked a high school diploma, while 40 percent of blacks and 64 percent of Hispanics on welfare were without a high school education. A high school diploma is a minimum requirement for staying out of poverty and off the public dole.
It's extremely difficult for uneducated adults to complete high school, much less college. The path toward a good education must begin early in life if we are to lessen the reliance on government programs for financial support.
Republicans have come up virtually dry when it comes to ways to boost educational support for those most likely to end up on welfare - poor Hispanics and blacks in inner city neighborhoods. Instead of seeking to improve destitute inner city public schools, Republicans want to strip them of what few resources remain by giving middle- and upper-class families tuition tax credits for private and religious schools while attacking public schools.
That leaves the poor - who cannot afford private school tuition even with tax breaks - consigned to the worst schools and the highest dropout rate. If Republicans want to get serious about ending the need for welfare, they can start by improving the nation's inner-city public school system. Otherwise, they must face charges that welfare reform has turned out just like they hoped it would.
Josette Shiner: The little-known fact that minorities are leaving wel-fare rolls at a much slower rate than whites is cause for grave concern. We do not yet know the cause of the disparity. But what we do know is that life on the public dole - a life not of self-reliance but of dependence - is by no means a good way to live. Long-term welfare is harmful to individuals, to families and to communities.
But let us not overlook the stunning successes of the welfare reform that Congress set in motion two years ago. Whites, blacks and Hispanics - all across the country, in urban and rural areas - are leaving welfare programs at unprecedented rates.
In August 1996, there were 12.2 million people on welfare. According to the department of Health and Human Services, there are now 8.9 million welfare recipients. In two short years, welfare rolls have dropped almost 30 percent. This marks one of the most successful, most important, most unexpected victories in modern public policy.
The good news, however, is obviously not the only news. Whites are, in fact, getting off welfare much faster than other groups. The crucial question is, what does it mean if caseloads are dropping 50 percent among whites, 35 percent among blacks and 20 percent among Hispanics? Is that an argument for slowing down or stopping welfare reform?
No. It is a call to action, an argument for urgently figuring out what is causing the disparity.