Christine A. Rowett
As a self-described "federal big shot" and member of
President Clinton's Working Group on Welfare Reform, David
Ellwood was one of many committee members required to visit
welfare offices across the country.
"It was," Ellwood said, "a powerful lesson."
As federal representatives, the "big shots" visited some of the biggest and, presumably, most efficient offices. They found that most welfare employees think of themselves as working in nothing more than a "check writing and eligibility business" where the most important goal is accuracy. Clients who generate the most paperwork are referred to as "problem cases."
"If accuracy is your ultimate goal, who is your ideal client?" Ellwood asked. "Someone who does nothing: never looks for a job, doesn't need child care.
"Think of the messages we're sending to people," he said.
As a result of those visits, he said, "Those on the left thought the welfare system was even worse than they thought. Those on the right thought it was a whole lot more complicated."
Ellwood was a Harvard graduate and professor in the late 1980s when he devised a plan to modify the federal welfare system using, in part, time limits for recipients. He was later recruited to develop the Clinton welfare reform plan as deputy assistant secretary for welfare at Health and Human Services.
After myriad debates and modifications, the compromise welfare legislation that Clinton signed last year calls for severe cuts in food stamp and child nutrition programs and aid to legal immigrants. It also includes some watered-down versions of Ellwood's ideas, such as work requirements for recipients.
Those requirements, however, may be waived by state governments. But Ellwood, the Malcolm Weiner Professor of Public Policy and the academic dean at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, retains hope for the system.
"Some states will do good things with the plan," he said, citing efforts in Oregon, Utah and Wisconsin. "Some states will do bad things. Some states will do nothing."
Ellwood spoke on the Homewood campus to nearly 100 students and faculty members last week as part of the Institute for Policy Studies' Policy Seminar Series.
"The series was designed to give faculty and students who have an interest in public policy a chance to meet and hear some of the leading policy thnkers and practitioners in the country talk about key current issues," IPS director Lester Salamon said. "There was a feeling that there is a substantial number of faculty and students who are interested in policy issues who almost never get together on a regular basis. Our institute can be a vehicle for this."
Past speakers have included Robert Greenstein, director of the Washington-based Center for Budget and Policy Priorities; Richard Nathan, provost of the Rockefeller University in New York; and Robert Inman, an expert on social policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
One goal of the series has been to provide an opportunity for Hopkins faculty members with an interest in policy to get to know each other better and connect across departmental and school lines.
"Before this, there hasn't really been a gathering point for them," Salamon said.
Ellwood, who also served as HHS Secretary Donna Shalala's principal adviser for the formation and analysis of welfare policy before leaving the administration in 1995, said the majority of the American public and policy makers are not interested in the welfare system. Those who are interested, however, have strong beliefs.
"There is a faction of the public who think welfare is the root of all problems," Ellwood said. "Yet it's very clear that the public wants to help people who help themselves. They don't want to throw people on the streets."
One of his biggest frustrations is that the public did not understand his time limits plan, Ellwood said.
"It used to drive me nuts," he said. "It was never 'two years and you're off.' It was 'two years and you work.'"
If people couldn't find work after two years, the government would provide job training and opportunities, he said.
In addition to the policy seminar series, IPS has developed a faculty study group on citizenship, values and policy that meets for a dinner discussion once a month. Future guests will include Robert Forster of the History department, Norman Nie of the University of Chicago and William Kymlicka of the University of Toronto.
"We've had some excellent sessions," Salamon said, noting that more than 20 faculty members have signed on.
Burt Barnow of IPS, Robert Moffitt of Economics and David Salkever of the School of Public Health served as planning members of the Policy Seminar Series.
The next session will be held April 24 with Gail Wilensky, the former administrator of the Department of Health and Human Services' Health Care Financing Administration. Those interested in the seminar series or the faculty study group may contact IPS at (410) 516-7174.
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