Welfare as We Know It

June 16, 1994

"There's no greater gap between our good intentions and our misguided consequences than you see in the welfare system," President Clinton said in announcing his welfare reform package this week. He was speaking of the welfare system as we know it now, but the chances are good that the words would apply equally well if his complex proposal becomes law. Clearly, the welfare system is broken. What is not so clear is how to fix it without making things worse.

"Welfare reform" is a popular political mantra. What isn't mentioned is that reforms intended to move people from dependence to self-sufficiency cost more than taxpayers are willing to spend. The price tag on the administration's original plan was $15 billion over five years. The president, unwilling to raise taxes, scaled it back to $9.3 billion, largely squeezed from other social programs. That's too bad. If Americans really want a welfare system that points people toward self-sufficiency, they need to know that it will cost more money than the current system -- at least in the short run. If, however, the nation really chooses to invest in its poorest citizens, much as it invested in the middle classes after World War II, the long-term benefits would repay the costs many times over.

It's important to remember that the main target of reform, the familiar AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), exists to help poor parents provide for their children. Yet serious discussion of the welfare of these children is rarely heard in this debate. What happens if we impose time limits on payments or work requirements on recipients, but don't provide decent child care while parents are at their jobs? The children pay the price. What good does that do for welfare families, or for society?

The Clinton plan has some good provisions, such as strengthening the collection of child support payments. There is also a strong case to be made for sending a message that families need to strive for self-sufficiency. But most of its distinguishing features are punitive to some degree, with no guarantee that essential support services -- child care, health services and the like -- will hold firm until families are on their feet financially.

One example, the controversial "family cap," gives states the option to deny benefits increases to welfare mothers who have another baby. The cap would affect a relatively small number of recipients but it has strong opposition, including such odd bedfellows as liberal anti-poverty activists and anti-abortion groups. To its credit, the Maryland legislature rejected a cap when it got bogged down in a related question of lifting Medicaid restrictions on abortion. The cap may make critics feel good, but it penalizes an innocent child.

The administration deserves credit for trying. It brought together some of the best students of welfare policy to draw up this plan. But the tangle of problems and policies that has given rise to the current mess will not yield easily, not even to the strongest campaign promises.

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