Movement on welfare reform Strategy shift: GOP concessions push action on welfare bill.

July 16, 1996

WHEN BILL CLINTON was elected president in 1992, welfare reform looked as certain as an overhaul of the nation's health care system. Wrong on both counts. In recent months, the

president's promise to "end welfare as we know it" appeared headed into the same abyss as his health care plans.

Caught between Republicans who have pushed harsher versions of reform and Democrats (including the president) who resist the most punitive approaches, congressional action was stalled. Meanwhile, the action shifted away from Washington, as federal waivers encouraged state governments to undertake their own experimental reforms.

Then last week, at the urging of Bob Dole, the GOP nominee-apparent, Republican congressional leaders agreed to split their welfare reform proposals from provisions to reform Medicaid -- a combination measure that President Clinton had vowed to veto. By stripping away the "poison pill" of Medicaid reform, the Republican welfare plan will be much harder for the president to spurn. And, if he does, Republicans hope they will have a clear issue to use against him on the campaign trail.

All this means that the prospect of "ending welfare as we know it" may not be dead after all. The Republican plan would include time limits and work requirements. It would end the federal guarantee of cash assistance for poor children, with each state receiving a lump sum to administer its own work and welfare programs. Heads of families would be required to work within two years or lose benefits, and 80 percent of families (a figure that allows for hardship exceptions) would be limited to five years of benefits over a lifetime.

The plan would also send a message about illegitimate births, allowing states to stop payments to unmarried teen parents and providing for additional cash grants for states that reduce births to unmarried women.

Those are dramatic changes and they may increase the number of children in poverty, a fact the administration downplays. But rather than running from those projections, Mr. Clinton ought to judge the plan by another yardstick -- its effectiveness in reducing the addiction to dependency that is the most intolerable and demeaning feature of the current system.

Pub date: 7/16/96

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