What the 'welfare debate' is really about

January 04, 1995

With welfare reform at the top of the new Republican-dominated Congress' agenda in 1995, the debate is heating up over what "reform" really means and how to get there. This month, House Republicans will propose setting a five-year limit on welfare benefits. Last week, the Clinton administration blasted the GOP plan, charging it would shove some 5.3 million children -- more than half the 9.7 million children who benefit from Aid to Families With Dependent Children, the nation's main welfare program -- off the rolls.

Who's right? Both sides agree that some sort of change is needed to break the debilitating cycle of dependency that consigns generation after generation of poor families to bleak existences of deprivation and despair. There is also general consensus that the disintegration of families in poor communities is a major cause of such societal ills as school failure, teen pregnancy and violent crime.

The terms "liberal" and "conservative" aren't always useful in describing differing approaches to reform. Some link the problem to a breakdown of "values" that has left the poor bereft of spiritual and moral compasses. Others see it as the result of a job market that no longer provides low-skilled workers with sufficient income. Both views have adherents among Democrats as well as Republicans. Nevertheless, the differing approaches are reflected in the confusion over what shape any proposed "reform" should take -- and what it can reasonably be expected to accomplish. The debate can easily turn into a vent for widespread frustration over America's seemingly intractable racial problems, fear of crime and taxpayer resentment.

Indeed, the often shrill tone of the discussion suggests the push to abolish welfare is as much a symbolic protest -- against "big government," or perceived "preferential" treatment for one group or another -- as it is an attempt to deal rationally with the poor. Welfare represents less than 1 percent of federal spending. Yet in polls Americans consistently rate it as one the largest budget items.

Lawmakers are going to have to sort through conflicting claims on both sides. They must decide whether their goal is to make welfare mothers work or to save the nation's children; to punish parents, or teach them how to better raise their kids. Every American has a stake in the outcome of this debate, because every American has a stake in the children who are this country's future. Whatever reforms are adopted, America can't shortchange its children without shortchanging itself.

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