Editorial opinion -- May 28

West Virginia Works is an experiment in human lives

(May 28) An experiment in human lives is under way right now. It's called West Virginia Works and it's the Mountain State's version of federal welfare changes that tighten eligibility guidelines.

The new guidelines require most state residents receiving welfare cash assistance to work. In a two-parent family, for example, one parent has to work 35 hours a week if the family is to continue receiving a welfare check each month.

West Virginia Works, started as a pilot program in nine counties, went statewide on Jan. 1.

Conservatives praise the stricter eligibility rules, saying they reduce government spending (welfare cash assistance case loads are down in all 55 counties), they discourage living off the taxes of others, and they encourage self-reliance. Liberals criticize the new rules, saying they hurt those truly in need of assistance, especially children.

The truth is no one knows how this experiment will turn out. But some early findings are in. According to the state Bureau for Children and Families:

¨ Of the 6,972 welfare cash assistance cases closed in the first three months of 1998, 22 percent were closed the recipient found jobs. Most of the jobs were near the bottom of the pay scale, such as fast-food worker, child care provider, telemarketers and laborer.

¨ 38 percent of the cases were closed because Supplemental Social Security Income benefits put the recipient over the new income eligibility guidelines. SSI benefits, federal funds that go to disabled and elderly people, are now counted as income.

¨ 24 percent of the welfare cases were closed because people failed to comply with new eligibility procedures, failed to meet new income guidelines or moved away, among other reasons.

¨ 16 percent of the cases were closed at the recipient's request.

We are neither social scientist, economist or statistician, so we can't predict what the results of this welfare experiment will be.

But the wilder predictions from both political sides appear to be disproved already. Conservatives can trumpet that caseloads are down across West Virginia, but most people dropped from welfare cash assistance are not working. Liberals can worry that caseloads are down, but 90 percent of state families denied welfare cash assistance are still receiving other benefits, such as food stamps and Medicaid.

Whatever the outcome, we need to remember that West Virginia Works is an experiment with human lives. And human lives are more important than government revenues, percentages and statistics.

--Tim Langer