The Welfare Train Wreck

BEN WATTENBERG

June 23, 1993|By BEN WATTENBERG

Washington. -- Finally, President Clinton has appointed a task force to develop his famous plan ''to end welfare as we know it, to break the permanent culture of dependence.'' That's the good news.

But Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, D-N.Y., the man in politics who knows the welfare issue best, is not happy. He says that if the Clinton plan embodies the principles that have been ascribed to it, it will be ''a political train wreck waiting to happen.'' That, says Mr. Moynihan, is because ''there is a dirty little secret to it.''

The secret is simple: The Clinton plan -- at least based on what has been said about it by the president and others -- will not end welfare as we know it. Not even close. Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute estimates that under the (admittedly vague) Clinton program a typical welfare mother will still receive about 90 percent of her current benefits!

How so? The guts of the plan is ''two years and out.'' That ostensibly means that for up to two years able-bodied welfare mothers will get major support for education, job training and child care, but then must get a job or lose benefits.

But what happens if a welfare recipient doesn't go to work? Based on the ideas propounded by Mr. Clinton, the only penalty would be a loss of the mother's share of an Aid to Families with Dependent Children grant. Thus, the mother continues to receive her children's share of the AFDC grant. And food stamps. And housing grants. And Medicaid. And Women-Infant-Children benefits. And is eligible for about 70 smaller programs. There is little incentive to work.

Moreover, one of the task force's co-chairmen, Harvard Professor David Ellwood, proposes to establish a ''child-support assurance system.'' That new program would give extra money to children whose fathers are not paying child support.

(Professor Ellwood is a mystery. Is he the tough ''two years and out'' advocate? Or is he the soft ''government as Daddy'' proponent? He has been described by some hard-liners as ''a sheep in wolf's clothing.'')

The politics of all this, says Senator Moynihan, are potentially catastrophic: ''What an awful surprise voters will get when they find out that ending welfare means being able to retire on a court-awarded child-support grant!''

The whole welfare situation is a mess, driven by a massive increase in illegitimate births. Nothing seems to work. Senator Moynihan's Family Support Act (1988) was designed to transform welfare into workfare. But it isn't panning out. A new report by the Public Policy Institute of New York State reveals that the New York effort to reform the system has made it worse, partly because it is based on the idea that ''entry-level'' jobs are not good enough for welfare recipients.

Is there an answer? A quick cut-off of welfare leaves innocent children in peril. Incremental tinkering with AFDC does not change the bonuses for feckless reproductive behavior, thus guaranteeing another generation hooked on dependency.

My sense is that the welfare situation must be seen whole -- AFDC, food stamps, housing grants and most of the rest. Then those ''Greater Welfare'' programs must be reduced, over time, for able-bodied, long-term poor people. An automatic across-the-board cut of, say, 10 percent per year for five years would send the message to future generations that America will no longer make it easy to have children out of wedlock.

Liberals will fight even the original Clinton formulation, let alone any dramatic change in Greater Welfare. But if the task force moves in a tough direction such a fight might be President Clinton's political salvation. It would help America and prove to voters that it was no trick when Mr. Clinton said, ''welfare should be a helping hand, not a way of life.''

Could a tough plan emerge from the Clinton task force? Bruce Reed, another co-chairman of the task force, says the group will look beyond just AFDC to the entire range of welfare programs, with a guiding light of ''the bolder the better.''

Only such an approach can avert a train wreck.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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