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Across the country, bureaucrats and advocates are running to and fro, scrambling to make good on the dream of welfare reform. Governors are finally basking in the devolution of federal power they’ve championed for so long. And the policy wonks are staring out their office windows wondering how it all happened so fast.

Most places will make do, patching holes in the safety net as best they can and putting pressure on Congress to fix what isn’t working. But D.C. is not like other places. The city is in the welfare business like no other place in America, and no other city is less prepared.

D.C. is uniquely vulnerable because the region stores poor people in the District but doesn’t pay taxes for the privilege. With no state to back it up and no vote in a distrustful Congress that watches its every move, D.C. can’t push back, either. The city has a dismal employment rate, a bungling Department of Employment Services, and one of the highest populations of welfare mothers per capita. The fundamentals of reform—jobs, training, and quality support programs—don’t really exist here.

The consequences will be citywide—the cold fact is that welfare is a major part of the local economy. More than half of D.C.’s children subsist on welfare, and many of their parents are simply unemployable in the long run—entrenched in poverty, unskilled, or disinterested. And last week, following news that the city’s job-training program had squandered its $7.3-million budget, the D.C. Council voted to scrap the program altogether.

Armed only with a bankrupt and broken city government, District leaders and employees are calmly preparing for this summer’s full implementation of the reform. But while the rest of the country rationalizes and bargains its way through the end of welfare, D.C. will be the unwitting stage on which the great welfare experiment will play out its darkest scenes. Truth be told, D.C.’s poor are totally screwed.

For decades, the federal welfare payment has acted as a meager but important subsidy that sustained the District. That ground is giving way. The welfare reform measure signed by President Clinton last summer ended the 60-year-old guarantee of a cash safety net for needy children, substituting a fixed block grant for each state to use largely as it sees fit in moving people off the dole and into jobs. For the first time in history, if the economy stumbles and more D.C. families need assistance, the amount of federal money will likely not meet the demand.

In addition to capping monies, the feds have mandated that jurisdictions move recipients into jobs, cut off assistance after a five-year lifetime limit, and halt payments to legal immigrants. In a place that can’t safeguard the integrity of its parking meters, how do you think those reforms will play out? When the experiment fails in St. Louis or Atlanta, lawmakers can shake their heads and decide it was bad policy. But when welfare reform fails in the District, members of Congress will nod knowingly and say they expected as much.

Last fall, the city got a vivid reminder of the scorching glare of that congressional oversight. It seems the welfare act, for all its draconian drama, contained a sizable escape hatch. Republican governors made sure that a little-noticed clause allowed states to weasel out of the more drastic provisions if they adopted their own welfare demonstration projects prior to the bill’s enactment. Noticing that other jurisdictions were taking evasive action, the District got its own welfare waiver approved by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—three days before Clinton signed the bill into law.

Like the federal law, the District’s plan would have imposed a five-year limit on welfare. But the District demonstration would have let recipients duck the limit if they developed a “job-search plan.” After those plans expired, recipients could apply for one-year extensions. And then they could apply again and again, indefinitely. “Work activities,” required by the federal bill, would be generously defined. It was a shrewd move to get out of getting tough on welfare, necessary in part because those who know the hardy welfare population in the District realize there is no way a quarter of them are moving off welfare and into jobs anytime soon.

Outraged by the District’s maneuvering, Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.) introduced legislation in Congress to withdraw approval of D.C.’s waiver, saying the city was avoiding real reform. More than 43 states had been granted waivers, a majority of which squirmed out of the five-year limit just as the District had, according to HHS. But Nickles argued that the District was sneakier than the rest because it got its waiver approved right under the wire, days before the federal law was signed. Sounds reasonable until you learn that the same day, HHS approved waivers for California, Idaho, and Kansas. Yeah, but the D.C. waiver would have lasted for 10 years, the senator said. So will the exemptions for Massachusetts, Tennessee, Washington, and Wisconsin.

D.C., though, was singled out because of Nickles’ raving that the city had pulled a fast one. Within days, the Clinton administration suddenly withdrew approval of the District waiver. HHS officials, who reportedly helped draft the D.C. waiver, justified dumping the proposal by claiming that the District had not fully complied with technical application procedures. Clinton officials deny that the move was politically motivated, but it’s clear that the president didn’t want to spend the capital to defend the capital’s right to wiggle the way the states did. Without a vote in Congress, the District just had to sit back and take it.

Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, was the first to advise the District that it should obtain a waiver. When the plan fell apart, Greenstein told the Washington Post that the city had gotten special treatment: “It is hard to imagine the department would have treated a governor in this fashion, withdrawing approval without even a prior discussion.” The National Governors’ Association, intimately involved in shaping the welfare bill, watched out for states’ interests. But D.C. has no governor, and mayors everywhere will tell you they weren’t at the table.

Absent a waiver, D.C. has to figure out how to comply with the welfare act in full by July 1. The mayor has created two panels to tackle the deed: an “interagency council” filled with top city administrators, and a citizens’ panel. The 24-member citizens’ commission did not want for expertise. Members included business execs, labor leaders, councilmembers, think-tank all-stars, and welfare recipients. The panel has held four public meetings since October, hearing the pleas of hundreds of concerned service-providers and advocates. “I think there was a responsible process undertaken,” says Peter Edelman, former assistant secretary of policy and evaluation at HHS. But Edelman, who walked out in disgust when Clinton signed the welfare law, says he’s still “not terribly optimistic.”

Yvette Tucker was on welfare for about a year and a half. Now she works at the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization and served on the citizens’ panel. Though she says it did a good job, she sensed a detachment from what’s at stake. “A lot of them were still caught up in the politics and bureaucracy of all this,” she says.

When the results of the local commission came out earlier this year, the mayor held press conferences, approved the recommendations, and gushed with conviction. He and his wise commissioners agreed that the city should pursue an aggressive jobs program, ensure child-care and health-care availability, shore up transportation access, and help the working poor. Who can argue with that? The city, the report said, should develop private- and public-sector job opportunities, mobilize business, and “focus job readiness and job creation efforts on unemployed adults.” Recipients who manage to find jobs, the report advised, should be able to keep more of their earnings than currently allowed before their welfare checks are reduced. And for good measure, a new managed-care health program should protect D.C.’s working poor.

And all this is going to happen by July? In the District? How? “Establish a task force,” “convene a meeting,” the report says. It might as well have said, “Pray like hell.” Moving welfare recipients into lasting jobs will be a herculean task in cities that have functional job-training programs and robust economies. The District has neither. The report actually suggests that D.C. can move people into jobs with the money the city saves from moving people into jobs.

Charles Miller, a Washington attorney who headed the citizens’ task force, remains optimistic. He points out that under the new federal law, the District’s block grant will actually be $10-13 million more than without the new law. “In the short run, that’s a help,” Edelman responds, “but that’s going to disappear by the third or fourth year. Increases in population and the cost of living will erode that windfall.” And more immediately, if the city doesn’t meet the demands of the new law, the next block grant will be 5 percent smaller. Given the District’s historic performance in meeting federal objectives, it’s a gun to the head that’s bound to go off.

The new federal law requires that 25 percent of welfare recipients be participating in “work activities” in fiscal year 1997. That wildly optimistic rate will increase by 5 percent each year until peaking at a delusional 50 percent in 2002. In D.C., that means that 4,660 mothers would have to be in qualifying work activities next year. An estimated 2,000 qualify right now. Under the new law, “work” means having an actual job (subsidized or not), or participating in community service, training, or education at least 20 hours a week.

Good luck, says Elizabeth Siegel, acting executive director of the advocacy group D.C. Action for Children. “My first question is, who is gonna train our recipients for these jobs? And my second question is, what jobs?” By this time, she says, “we should have already set up a community-service referral system. We should have started a job-training and placement program.” Her list of things the city has not done or can’t afford to do is long and frighteningly specific. “The two committees heard the right things. They know the numbers. I think they wrote some good recommendations. Unfortunately, a lot of them are too expensive to put into effect.”

Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson served on the citizens’ panel, chairs the council’s Government Operations Committee, and spent nine years at the American Public Welfare Association. “I don’t think we will be prepared,” she says. “We are weak in our capacity to deliver job training and placement and we are weak in our ability to provide adequate child care.” To top it off, Patterson says, “we are in a fishbowl,” under congressional watch.

The people who need jobs in the District aren’t going to find them here. Employment has increased an average of less than 1 percent per year over the past decade in the city, compared to a 21-percent increase in the metropolitan area overall, according to the Post. The main employer in the District, the federal government, is cutting jobs on a daily basis. Paul Offner, who served on the Interagency Council as the District’s Medicaid chief, says the city has a double burden: “Here you have the twin problem of 8 percent unemployment and this enormous concentration of welfare people who, according to federal statistics, have smaller earnings than any other state.”

The future looks equally dim. The District’s annual job growth is only expected to go up one-half of 1 percent, according to the commissions’ report. In the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, jobs will come faster, but those states will be filling them up just as quickly with their own welfare recipients.

D.C. welfare recipients are a tough bunch, who have become further entrenched in dependency with each successive generation. Many don’t have the skills to get jobs, and even if they did, they don’t have the support or attitude to keep them. The welfare population here festers with higher than average illiteracy, addictions, and chronic health problems. Other places are counting on their suburbs to provide jobs for newly trained welfare recipients. Undoubtedly, D.C.’s suburbs will respond to the city’s employment needs with the same indifference that characterizes their overall relationship with the city.

Forget the talk about ending “welfare as we know it.” In the District, welfare reform may threaten city life as we know it. There is all sorts of Chicken Littling on the welfare issue, but it’s clear that for the average Washingtonian, welfare reform means more poverty, more crime, more hands outstretched on the streets, and more kids in the city’s disastrous foster care program.

The District is in denial—there have been some speculative stories in the daily press about what will happen to the average welfare family, but no one is ready for the havoc the reforms will wreak. At a time when the city seems to be getting a handle on its budget and functions with a push from the control board, a whole new crisis will emerge. A return to the rampant homelessness that characterized the District during the ’80s is just one of the ugly possibilities.

Offner says there is only so much the District can do to implement reforms, considering its current level of dysfunction. “It is very, very important that we not overpromise. The history of welfare reform around the country is of governors overpromising,” he says. “I think it would be a mistake, given the District’s financial difficulties, to promise that it could put all these welfare mothers to work.”

Former welfare recipient Tucker says all the confident talk about genuine reform will soon bump into a reality she knows all to well: “You have to change the way people think. That’s going to be the hardest task.” And in the meantime? “I don’t think people realize what’s about to happen. People don’t do anything until it hits home.” CP