Welfare is called disaster

January 29, 1995|By Carl M. Cannon and Paul West | Carl M. Cannon and Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In a break from their partisan bickering, leading Republicans and Democrats met with President Clinton for 5 1/2 hours yesterday to tackle welfare, agreeing afterward that the current approach is a disaster that must be changed.

"It's an absolutely bankrupt system," said Wayne Bryant, a Democratic state legislator from New Jersey who has sponsored one of the toughest welfare requirements in the nation. "We talked about . . . putting families first. There was some consensus . . . on that."

Mr. Bryant made his comments at a White House briefing after the unusual "welfare summit," which brought together more than two dozen governors, key members of Congress and local officials from around the country.

"I was remarkably surprised by the tone of the meeting," said Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, who was among those taking part. "The entire morning was characterized by a tone of civility, collegiality and cooperation."

Mr. Clinton yesterday called welfare "perhaps the most pressing social problem we face in our country." But, in tacit recognition that Republicans have taken the lead on the issue, he indicated that instead of submitting his own reform plan, he would try to help Republicans shape theirs.

"If we're going to end welfare," he told reporters, "let's do it right."

Consensus was also signaled by the two issues Ms. Mikulski emphasized when she spoke after the session at Blair House, the presidential guest quarters opposite the White House.

First, she said, as policy-makers address the explosion in the numbers of unwed mothers who go on welfare before they are even out of their teens, far more attention must be given to the role played by -- and responsibilities of -- unwed fathers.

Ms. Mikulski spoke of forcing the issue of paternity as a condition of benefits, even raising the idea of requiring fathers to work in a public-sector job, if necessary, to discharge their obligations. This attitude is becoming a mainstream liberal position -- and was part of Mr. Clinton's welfare reform proposal last year.

But the Maryland Democrat stressed an issue that is also at the heart of conservatives' grievances about the current system: the way it discourages work and marriage for poor mothers. In decrying the impediments to marriage, Ms. Mikulski used language almost identical to that in position papers written for Republicans by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

"The differences [between Republicans and Democrats] are few and far between," said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. a Florida Republican who chairs the House subcommittee dealing with welfare. "The president was probably surprised to find there was so much agreement."

Nevertheless, as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood, an Oregon Republican, pointed out, there still are markedly different theories over how best to repair the system. Some of these differences are ideological, pitting conservatives against liberals; some are philosophical, pitting the governors against Congress; others are just honest differences of opinion over the best way to fix the system.

Limiting benefits

Delaware Gov. Thomas R. Carper, for instance, formally asked the Clinton administration yesterday to allow his state to limit benefits to women who have additional children while on welfare and to deny cash payments to unmarried mothers under 18. Mr. Carper is a Democrat.

Gov. John Engler of Michigan has concluded that those steps are not desirable in his state, and instead is focusing most of his attention on job placement for welfare recipients. He is a Republican.

But if the battle doesn't always break along neat lines, one issue became clear yesterday:

The coming battle in Congress will be fought over the precise meaning of the innocuous-sounding word "flexibility." In the jargon of welfare reform, this refers to giving states more authority to tailor their own programs and establish their own minimum requirements for programs such as the main welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, as well as food stamps and even Medicaid, the government health program for the poor.

Everyone who spoke after yesterday's meeting agreed that states should have more flexibility. But how much flexibility is the question. Will some states force recipients to work, while others won't? Will types of benefits vary from state to state? Will welfare even still be an "entitlement" program?

Republican governors favor almost unlimited flexibility. Some are even discussing moving away from the current system in which individuals are entitled to a payment based on their income. Instead, the federal government would simply give states a set amount for welfare, in the form of a block grant, and leave it to the states to determine how the money is spent.

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