Reform in Haste, Repent at Leisure

April 22, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- So, we are about to ''end welfare as we know it.'' The campaign slogan is going to become public policy. Questions about whether to end welfare are now questions about how to end it.

No one will lament the death of this system. It's broke. Mothers on welfare know it. Taxpayers know it. Social workers know it. Analysts know it.

A shaky social consensus once supported welfare as a temporary safety net for widowed or deserted mothers and children. Now the same consensus abhors it as a permanent trap.

Americans once believed that welfare should keep mothers and children together and fed. Now most Americans believe that it helps create single-parent families and subsidizes a life of permanent dependency.

Some would simply close up the welfare shop. They favor shock therapy for the poor. The check would not be in the mail. Single mothers and children would be on their own. Sink or swim.

But most Americans believe in building some kind of a bridge. They believe that we can't cut poor people off the lifeline of public support without helping them toward self-support.

Indeed, the most unsettling argument is now among people who agree on ''the end'' but not the means. It's an argument about how much help is needed and how much we are willing to pay for. We are learning the dirty little secret of welfare reform: The reform costs more than the welfare. It costs more to build a bridge from welfare to work than to keep floating checks across the water.

Another little secret is that if we don't do The dirty little secret of welfare reform is that the reform costs more than the welfare. It costs more to build a bridge from welfare to work than to keep floating checks across the water.

this right, the blame for hurting the poor and the young will land in the laps of the reformers who described the Reagan and Bush years as a right-wing jihad against the poor.

What haunts me while I listen to the debate about welfare reform is the memory of the way we ''reformed'' mental-health care. In the 1970s, with the best of intentions, we had a plan to end mental-health care as we knew it.

We decided to shut down the hospitals that warehoused the mentally ill and open up community-care facilities. The hospitals went into mothballs but we never opened enough homes.

Today, the unintended consequences of de-institutionalization are walking our city streets talking to their own demons.

Now the consensus among welfare reformers in Washington is that welfare should come with a two-year time limit. This time limit is at the heart of ending-welfare-as-we-know-it.

It's the single feature that transforms a program about dependence into one about independence. It turns welfare into a transitional benefit, providing a single mother and her children with income while she heads toward the work force.

I agree with the need for a time limit. But as the reformers wrestle down the compromises of ideology and economics, I am conscious of the other half of the bargain.

Here is the short list of what is needed to reform welfare, not just end it: Work that pays more than AFDC. Universal health care. Enforcement of child-support payments. Job training. Education. Child care.

And that doesn't include the cost of trying to prevent more poor single-parent families. Or what happens when mothers don't meet the two-year deadline.

According to the current proposals, even a phased-in and limited reform may cost some $15 billion more in the first five years than passing out checks. The costs of child care alone tell a good part of the story. The median welfare benefit for a family of three is $367 a month. But average working parents pay at least $200 a month in child care and a good day-care center can cost $400 a month per child. In that ever-fungible time period known as the short run, other care can cost the government more than mother care.

The welfare task force has run down lists of ways to pay for reform. Raise taxes -- and hope the public is more willing to pay for the end of welfare than its continuance. Cut aid to immigrants, to the working poor, to grandparents taking care of grandchildren -- and hope no one notices that we are balancing )) welfare reform on the backs of the poor.

But as one disconsolate reformer has said, ''There are no good choices.'' And in some ways that seems to be the refrain of the times.

In the next months and years, keep one eye on the bottom line. But keep another eye out for the ''unintended consequences.''

It is possible, in these difficult and cautious times, to do it wrong again.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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