Welfare reform appears delayed until next year



WASHINGTON -- President Clinton now has a report from his task force on how to fulfill his campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it" by making welfare a second chance rather than a way of life.

The goals are easy for everyone to endorse. But the real message in the report is that the road to welfare reform is blocked by enormous political obstacles -- imposing enough, in fact, so that the chances of promulgating the program this year seem extremely slim.

The essence of the plan is the proposal on which candidate Bill Clinton ran for the presidency two years ago when he used the issue as one of his prime bona fides in demonstrating that he was a "new Democrat" and not another lineal descendant of tax-and-spend liberals. Welfare costs have always been a bone in the throat of working-class taxpayers.

The plan would make welfare benefits a two-year program, after which recipients would move into jobs for which they were trained while on welfare. The welfare clients would be provided day care for their children, food stamps and free health care and allowed to keep more of their pay from working without losing all their benefits.

It all sounds very neat, which is often the case with federal social programs. But it also sounds like a proposal that conservatives could easily depict as still another federal entitlement even though Clinton could argue that such a reform eventually would reduce public costs.

The task force had no answer for two questions. The first is where the jobs can be found in an economy in which there is little demand for workers with the lowest level of skills. The second is how the transitional costs -- estimated at $15 billion over five years -- could be met.

Some liberal Democrats in Congress -- including members of the Congressional Black Caucus -- have always had reservations about the welfare plan and whether it amounted to realizing big savings "on the backs of the poor." Black political leaders were always suspicious of Clinton's campaign emphasis on the welfare issue when it was given extra prominence in television commercials, particularly in the South. And they wondered about their nominee's emphasis on the "responsibility" of welfare beneficiaries.

Now they can be expected to raise hard questions about how much pressure would be put on welfare mothers with infant children to work and how the rules would be written for exemptions from the two-year limit on benefits.

Liberals also could be expected to resist financing the plan by reductions in other entitlement programs, the only alternative to higher taxes that seems feasible these days.

The tax-increase option, however, is no better, particularly if it were applied to any large cross section of taxpayers. That is the reason the task force suggested consideration for such options as a 4 percent tax on the income of gambling casinos and racetracks.

Whether such a tax could raise $15 billion is an unanswered question, however. Many racetracks are already hanging on the brink of bankruptcy.

The timetable for dealing with all these politically tricky questions is very much in doubt. Last winter Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan of New York, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said welfare reform should have a higher priority than health care reform. But the White House has taken the position that health care reform is a prerequisite to changes in the welfare system because health care is such an important element of welfare costs.

The result has been a de facto compromise under which both proposals were supposed to move through Congress at about the same time, which is why the White House is promising its welfare legislation sometime later this spring.

But things don't happen that fast in Congress. It is already clear that the health care reform puzzle is so complex it won't be solved until late in the year -- just before the midterm elections -- at the earliest. As a result, welfare is an issue for 1995 -- just when the presidential campaign of 1996 begins.

It is not an auspicious time for an issue as touchy as welfare reform. But there probably is no good time.

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