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Helping People Help Themselves

Welfare reform is high on every politician’s list in Washington. President Clinton plans to make good on his campaign promise to “change welfare as we now know it” when his Administration submits its proposals to Congress, possibly as early as April. Republicans aren’t waiting on Clinton. Their bills are already in the hopper in the House and Senate. We hope the coming debate results in a program that puts recipients to work without sacrificing the well-being of children or driving the nation deeper into debt. That’s a difficult but not impossible goal.

Clinton’s welfare task force is expected to allow two years of benefits before requiring a recipient to get a job. To encourage the transition to work, the government would provide child care, training and, if a recipient couldn’t find work, a public job such as some form of community service. However, this humane approach--certainly superior to “reforms” that would cut off needy people without regard to their children’s survival--could cost as much as $7 billion over five years. Washington couldn’t afford that sum without savaging other federal programs.

To reduce the cost, Clinton’s welfare experts recommend phasing in the program. They would start with mothers born after 1970--young women considered good candidates to escape from welfare. With overall participation initially limited, their chances of finding jobs in the private sector would improve and the cost would drop because fewer public jobs would be needed.

Helping the next generation of welfare mothers would require a small investment that could easily pay for itself in the long run because the majority of teen-age mothers end up on welfare and these women tend to stay on longer than more mature first-time recipients. Prevention is essential.

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Phasing in welfare reform also makes sense because a gradual approach would allow the government to capitalize on what works and fix what fails before mandating wholesale changes. California successfully phased in the state workfare program GAIN, although lack of funding limited participation for years.

Similar fiscal constraints also severely limited the effectiveness of the well-crafted Family Support Act of 1988, a bipartisan welfare reform that Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) shepherded through Congress. Few states could afford to pay their shares, so barely 15% of eligible recipients have been able to use this program.

The state expense also makes welfare reform a hot topic in Sacramento. Last week gubernatorial candidate John Garamendi put forth his own welfare reform program; the Democrat Garamendi, like the Democrat Clinton, is starting to sound more like the Republican Pete Wilson.

Under the growing bipartisanship, Congress will consider dozens of proposals to encourage or force the 4.5 million parents who receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children to become self-sufficient. Phasing in any new program will reduce costs and improve the chance of success.

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