Clinton's toughest task may be welfare reform

ON POLITICS

December 07, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- If President Clinton has learned to play the inside game of politics here, as the conventional wisdom has it, he will have ample opportunity to prove it as he tries to steer a welfare reform program through Congress.

Of all the issues on the president's activist agenda, none is as politically complex and sensitive as welfare reform. Nor is the handling of any issue as likely to define Clinton as welfare.

For two decades now, Republicans have used the welfare issue to depict Democrats as fuzzy liberals with no respect for the way the taxpayers' money is wasted on those who don't work for a living.

Who can forget Ronald Reagan's classic tale of the "welfare queen" in Chicago who collected hundreds of checks while riding around in her Cadillac. The fact that the story had no foundation in fact didn't make it any less politically effective.

Such tales were crowd-pleasers that had much to do with the creation of that bloc of voters known as the Reagan Democrats, meaning working-class nominal Democrats who were reacting against the excesses of Democratic "tax and spend" social policies and voting Republican in presidential elections.

The exploitation of that resentment was effective enough that Democrats finally tumbled, at least to the point of raising questions about a system in which some families were welfare clients for generation upon generation. That new realism was never more apparent than in 1992 when candidate Bill Clinton defined himself as a "new Democrat" by his rhetoric on "individual responsibility" and his promise of a reform that would make welfare "a second chance rather than a way of life."

But now Clinton finds himself obliged to deliver, and it is not going to be easy. The foundation of his plan is that welfare recipients can receive benefits for only two years, at which point they will be obliged to take either jobs or training as a first step to becoming self-sufficient.

On its face, that approach sounds reasonable enough when applied to able-bodied beneficiaries quite capable of holding jobs -- the "loafers" the conservatives have targeted so unerringly. But the fact is that the lion's share of welfare money is spent, mostly through the Aid to Dependent Children program, on recipients with neither the education nor skills to compete in today's economy.

And that, in turn, means that any Clinton plan that adheres to his original intentions will require huge outlays to either subsidize jobs in private industry or create new ones in the public sector and to provide both training for those jobs and day care for the children.

Proponents of these plans always can demonstrate that if they work out, the savings in welfare costs down the line will more than offset the short-term costs. Also, they can make a convincing case for making taxpayers out of tax-consumers.

But demonstrating where the money can be found is another matter in an era of tight spending ceilings. And it is just as difficult, if not more so, to show where jobs can be created for millions of Americans with neither skills nor schooling when there are not yet enough for those who do have those advantages. Everyone cannot be a computer technician.

There are other complicating political factors involving key constituencies of the Democratic Party. It is clear, for example, that public employee unions are not going to sit by idly and watch public service jobs at minimum wage be created at a time many of their own members are being squeezed.

Then there is a racial component. Although there are more whites than blacks on welfare in absolute numbers, the proportion of blacks is much higher than that for whites -- high enough in some cities that welfare recipients have become an important constituency. So it would not be surprising if some black politicians saw racism in an attack on the system, even if such a characterization isn't justified.

The welfare problem is now a $60 billion or $70 billion-a-year national problem, one swollen to such proportions by the inability of Democrats to confront it realistically. Bill Clinton was elected on a promise to do so and seems determined to deliver on that commitment. But both the political and economic context will make it tough.

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