Congress turns debate to welfare

January 15, 1995|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Thirty years and $5.3 trillion later, the War on Poverty is itself under siege.

The newly empowered Republican Congress -- dominated by conservatives who pledged during last fall's campaign to slash welfare benefits -- is poised to do something about the welfare system, which they say has veered out of control.

With even mainstream Democrats joining the effort, there is little doubt that welfare reform will be one of the key debates of 1995, possibly leading to the most ambitious and far-reaching overhaul of welfare since its creation six decades ago. The process began Friday, as a House Ways and Means subcommittee began hearings.

"Everybody agrees that the system is broken," says A. Sidney Johnson III, executive director of the American Public Welfare Association, which represents state social service agencies in Washington. "We have to fix it."

Today's welfare system can be traced to 1935, when Congress granted payments to poor, single women with families.

"Welfare was originally set up for widows or women whose husbands had abandoned them during the Depression," says Daryl C. Plevy, deputy secretary for the Maryland State Department of Human Resources.

Thirty years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his "war" on poverty. Medicaid and food stamps were added to the basic welfare package, now called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Advocates of welfare rights often point out that AFDC payments take only 1 percent of the federal budget and 2 percent of the average state budget.

But over the years, Congress has added many programs, from housing subsidies to assistance with heating bills. In all, the government oversees some 70 anti-poverty programs. In 1993, the last year for which figures are available, the total cost was $324 billion -- about half of it for Medicaid, the health care program for the poor and disabled funded jointly by the states and the federal government. That's 5 percent of the gross domestic product -- and far more than for national defense, at about $252 billion.

Ten million children now live in AFDC households, and with out-of-wedlock births soaring, the question has been raised as to whether this money is actually subverting the values of the nation.

"[Sen. Daniel Patrick] Moynihan said it first and best," wrote conservative scholar Charles Murray, referring to the New York Democrat's early writings about the disintegration of the black family. "A community that allows a large number of young men to grow up without fathers 'asks for and gets chaos.' "

Several reform bills already have been submitted in Congress; more are on the way. On Jan. 28, President Clinton is to hold a welfare "summit" with governors. Last week, House Republicans outlined details of a sweeping leadership plan, still taking shape.

Out of this activity, three approaches have emerged:

* The first came from Mr. Clinton. Last summer, he submitted a $9 billion proposal requiring adult welfare recipients to work, go to college or enroll in job training to receive benefits for more than two years.

Republicans criticized the president's plan, saying it barely addressed the issue of teen pregnancy, cost money rather than saved money and expanded the welfare bureaucracy. Last week, the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), a centrist Democratic think tank friendly to Mr. Clinton, urged him to scale down the bureaucracy, even to the point of farming out some job-training functions to private industry.

* A second option, which has come out of talks between House Republicans and the nation's big-state governors, would rebate huge "block grants" to the states, which would then be given more flexibility in how to administer their programs.

But the GOP would set some limits, including a firm "two-year-and-out" provision, a crackdown on welfare payments to recent immigrants, a cap on benefits for women who bear more children while on welfare and a cutoff of payments to unmarried mothers under age 18.

* A second GOP plan, introduced Jan. 4 by Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, goes further. It would shift to the states the job of providing cash welfare payments, food stamps and supplemental nutritional programs. In return, the federal government would pick up a comparable amount of the states' Medicaid costs -- $45 billion last year.

"For me, the first basic question to be addressed is not how to reform welfare, but who should do the reforming," said Ms. Kassebaum, chairwoman of the Labor Committee, one of the panels that will shape reform legislation. The Kansas Republican was referring to one of the ideological fault lines in the debate: Who should design and operate the welfare system -- the federal government or the states?

The Democrats favor continued federal funding and overall control, while allowing states greater flexibility. Republicans, especially the governors, favor nearly complete state authority.

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