Portents for the last year of the Reagan Administration are almost unrelievedly bleak. With the political season in full swing, with the White House and Congress at loggerheads on such basic issues as the budget deficit, hopes for bipartisan legislative accomplishment appear minuscule.
There are two possible exceptions. One, of course, is arms control, although further progress will depend as much on Mikhail S. Gorbachev as on initiatives proposed by the U.S. Administration.
The second, perhaps surprisingly, is welfare reform. For the first time in more than 20 years, there is an emerging liberal-conservative consensus on broad outlines of welfare legislation. A sweeping reform bill passed the House of Representatives just before the holiday break, sharply revising current rules on work and job training, child care and child support.
The House bill, with a price tag in the $4-billion to $5-billion range, is too expensive for the White House and the Republican leadership. But a thoughtful bill sponsored in the Senate by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) is closer to Republican spending tastes. If Ronald Reagan can harness the dissipating remnants of his presidential prestige behind a consensus proposal, there is an opportunity to rack up one last substantial achievement.
The opportunity arises in large part because both liberals and conservatives are abandoning their opposing stereotypes of the welfare population, views that have dominated social-policy debates for the last 25 years.
The liberal stereotype, dating from the 1960s, was that welfare recipients were victims of forces beyond their control. Generous and non-obtrusive aid would allow recipients to maintain their dignity and social connections. Recipients themselves could be entrusted to leave the rolls when their circumstances permitted.
The collapse of the traditional family structure, particularly among blacks, and the dispiriting increase in dependency among the working-age population swept away the hopes of liberal reformers. Caseloads jumped more than sevenfold in the 1960s. By 1985, about 60% of all births to black women were out of wedlock--and 90% of births to black teen-agers. Half of black teen-age mothers go on welfare.
The vast increase in female-headed families, more than any other factor, accounts for the persistence of poverty in the 1970s and 1980s. Fewer than one in 10 fathers of welfare children contribute anything to their support. While it is far too simplistic to argue that the availability of welfare has caused such pervasive and shameful irresponsibility, it it equally naive to pretend that it has not facilitated it.
But the conservative welfare stereotype of a semi-permanent subpopulation of shiftless television-watchers doesn't fit facts either. Over time, some 80% of welfare recipients are short-stay cases, on the rolls only to weather temporary crises, like a separation or a loss of employment.
The 20% of welfare cases that stay on the rolls over the long term, of course, account for a disproportionate share of expenditures, but the majority of them are not black families living in urban ghettos. They are more likely to live in rural areas and be elderly or disabled.
Even the more hopeless welfare cases, black teen-age mothers who drop out of school to have their babies, show surprising long-term mobility. A recent 17-year follow-up of such mothers in Baltimore found that only 25% of them had become long-term recipients. Another quarter had been sporadically on and off the rolls. A quarter had worked consistently, although at marginal income levels, and a final quarter had achieved stable marriages with family incomes in excess of $25,000. The least successful cases, interestingly enough, married the teen-age fathers of their children.
The possibility of a liberal-conservative welfare consensus involves acceptance of two fundamental facts. The first is that welfare grant levels have been reduced dramatically in real terms since the early 1970s. In some states, particularly in the South, grant levels are shamefully low. In Mississippi, the maximum monthly benefit for a family of four was $120 in 1985. A national floor on benefits is clearly needed.
The second critical recognition is that welfare program administration must send "social signals" that reinforce the values and work ethic of the larger society, both for the sake of the recipients themselves and to ensure continued public support.
California and Massachusetts have led the way in converting welfare programs into work-opportunity programs. In a country where most poor women work, and an even larger percentage of non-poor women are employed outside the home, it makes no sense to exempt welfare mothers from work requirements. The federal rule exempting mothers with children under six makes least sense of all, since young mothers could benefit the most from developing marketable skills early in their careers. The countervailing requirement, on the other hand, is for some minimally acceptable child-care provision for young children.
Moynihan's bill, following the pattern of innovative state legislation in Wisconsin, would convert all welfare for healthy working-age people into child-support legislation. The major advantage of such an approach is that it focuses primary and early attention on the earnings of the absent father.
The chances of collecting large amounts of money from ghetto teen-age fathers may be slim but there is no excuse for not making the effort. If nothing else, persistent monetary pressure will convey the message that there are consequences to fathering children and help alleviate the feeling that welfare programs foster irresponsibility.
The obstacle to major legislation at the moment is money. But even the Republican alternative to the Democratic House bill, as sponsored by Minority Leader Rep. Robert H. Michel of Illinois and endorsed by the White House, would have raised spending by more than $1 billion. The cost of Moynihan's bill falls between House and Administration proposals.
None of the reforms under consideration has grand pretensions. They offer only modest improvements in provision and modest changes in program philosophy. But with the current mood of sour disarray in Washington, opportunities to upgrade welfare policy and build a broader base of public support at the same time are too rare to be squandered.