Welfare proposals seen clasping old-line values



WASHINGTON -- At a White House briefing the other day on President Clinton's new welfare reform proposals, he was asked why he thought they would not encounter the same stiff resistance that has imperiled his plan for health care reform.

His welfare reforms, he replied, were less complicated and easier to understand, and would not have such an array of special interests opposing them. In this regard, he said, "Whitewater was partly about health care," meaning that his foes were using whatever issues they could find to stymie him on his principal legislative initiative of the year.

He talked about a "major, major assault" from the small-business lobby, "from the insurance companies, from Rush Limbaugh, from the whole right, radical right in the country."

Welfare reform indeed does not appear to have the institutional opposition of the sort that has lined up against health care reform. If there are vested interests in the current welfare system, they consist largely of recipients who have little political clout and, conceivably, social workers. But the latter do not figure to be substantially hurt by the Clinton plan. It would impose a two-year limit on welfare payments to a segment of recipients and requirements for job training. But those requirements should keep the social workers with plenty to do.

Clinton noted at the same time that whereas health care reform )) clashes in many minds with the American sense of "values" that calls for individual responsibility, his welfare proposals square with such values, and play into the belief in the American work ethic.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala emphasized how the proposals are based on accepted values of meeting responsibility through work or education. A 16-year-old mother under the plan would have to remain in school and in an established household to receive a welfare check. An 18-year-old would have to undergo job training and/or take a job, in the private or public sector.

Hospitals would be required to establish the paternity of all babies born and the mother would be required to identify and help find the father in order to receive benefits. Of the fathers, Shalala said, "we intend to hold them responsible and we will track them down," and then garnishee their wages or pick up their driver's licenses to force them to help support their children.

"Some of this has to be a real-life reality check," the secretary said, for current welfare recipients who will have to face up to a decision to work or train for work that they do not have to face now. The challenge, she said, is to make work and the pride of self-sufficiency more advantageous than staying on welfare. "No one in the program is [going to be] able to take the check and go home and sit down for a number of years," she said. That prospect is likely to be very popular among voters who for years have looked upon welfare as a haven for loafers.

Because the Clinton program would be phased in, with women born after 1971 targeted first on grounds that young single mothers can best benefit from the approach, Republican criticism of "half a loaf" is already being heard. Shalala noted that the very people who have criticized Clinton's health care reforms as going too fast are now the first to complain about the pace of welfare reform.

Clinton argues, however, that unless universal health care coverage is in place, one of the key elements in welfare reform will be undercut -- assuring that recipients who accept work don't risk losing health care insurance in the process.

Ever since the days when Ronald Reagan made political hay out of complaining about the "welfare queen" in Chicago who used to buy gin with food stamps and socked away a small fortune in welfare checks, people on welfare have been easy targets for the upholders of family values, of responsibility through work.

Clinton clearly hopes to tap into that same vein for the public support he will need next year when he is expected to give welfare reform top priority -- assuming he gets some kind of health care reform this year.

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