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Breaking the cycle

Breaking the cycle

It's not yet the time to celebrate welfare victory

If President Clinton reluctantly went bowling, picked up a ball, and then watched as a small earthquake made all the pins in every lane fall over, he would claim credit for rolling a dozen strikes.

If Bill Clinton, excited by the success of the U.S. women's soccer team, donned shorts to play in an exhibition game and mistakenly kicked the ball into his own goal, he would instantly trade jerseys and claim that he had purposely scored the winning goal for his new team.

That's what it was like last Tuesday as the president trumpeted statistics showing that many of the welfare recipients of 1996 moved into the workplace during 1997 and 1998, just as welfare reformers predicted.

The president was not one of the reformers. He fought Republican-initiated measures all the way until August 1996, when his pollsters told him that one more veto of a welfare reform bill could allow Bob Dole to cut into the Clinton lead. He finally signed it and now claims to be its No. 1 fan.

That's worth pointing out but not crying about: As the saying goes, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. It's great that all 50 states are in compliance with the welfare reform law. It's great that welfare rolls have been cut in half since reaching their all-time high in 1994. It's an improvement that there are now about 7 million Americans on welfare, the least since Lyndon B. Johnson was president.

But the new figures also show dramatic declines beginning to slow in some states. After large drops, welfare caseloads remained relatively stable last year in Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and West Virginia-and they increased in New Mexico and Indiana.

Now it's time to begin the real battle: to help those who have gained jobs to stick with them, and to help the harder-to-place welfarists find work throughout the week, so they can enjoy a real Sabbath. Church projects can help enormously in the process of changing worldviews and attitudes through God's grace.

In Minneapolis, the largest city in one of those states that seem to be falling into welfare stagnation, I visited recently an outgrowth of Bethlehem Baptist Church that is structured to propel lasting changes in lives.

The church owns an old building that serves as the rent-free home of Masterworks, an offline assembly business (employees, for example, place washers on screws) run by church member Tim Gladder. The business gives many who have been on welfare some consistent work experience.

"The key problem," he noted, "is not starting a job but staying with it." Some people drop out because of family or transportation problems, but others "take a month off, then see that the rent is due tomorrow and think, 'I'd better get a job.' You can train people, but until they break this habit, training will be a waste. You have to break the cycle."

Masterworks tries to break the cycle by provide incentives to stay on the job at least a year. Wages start at the $5.15 minimum but go up by a quarter per hour each month during the first year. After a year, employees get paid vacation, the right to be paid on piecework-they can earn more that way-and profit-sharing.

Mr. Gladder passionately sums up: "It amounts to $8.15 per hour, or $10 if they're fast, and an additional $500 in profit-sharing. It's so important to achieve some consistency at work; if they get it, that discipline carries over into other areas, so they'll stick with a lease, and maybe they'll even stick with a marriage."

Mr. Gladder's most frustrating experience came when a stellar worker made it to 51 weeks, just short of paid vacation and piecework incentive pay, but then had a fight with a friend and stopped coming to work. But good experiences, such as that of the man who started on the assembly line and has risen to production manager, also come to mind.

Mr. Gladder's understanding of how to be compassionate has changed over the years: "I used to tell someone, 'If you get punched out by your boyfriend, take the day off.' Now I find myself saying, 'You've got to show up.' We have to break that cycle of short-term jobs." Successful workers often need a faith in God that goes past Sunday worship to a sense of glorifying Him through consistent labor all through the week.

Getting off welfare is easy. Staying off it requires perseverance. Churches need to help when crises emerge, while at the same time treating individuals not as pets but as responsible human beings made in God's image. As President Clinton's false speechifying wins applause, the Tim Gladders who provide tough love are the real heroes.