Welfare as we knew it Bill passes Senate: Without changes, third Clinton veto is possible.

July 25, 1996

IN THE LONG trek to welfare reform, the only thing harder to find than defenders of the status quo is consensus on how to change it. The goal of bills passed in recent days by the House and Senate is to increase self-sufficiency, but whether the measures will address the heart of the problem remains to be seen.

No reform of welfare is worth the paper it is printed on unless it addresses the numbing dependency ingrained in families, especially over several generations. When Americans talk about the failures of the welfare system, they are not begrudging poor people food to eat or access to a doctor when sick. They are referring to the fact that for too many poor Americans, welfare has become more lucrative than work and a government check more available and attractive than a stable marriage; while initiative, ambition and perseverance have become irrelevant to daily life.

Too many young people are growing up not knowing any adult who has held a job for a significant period of time. As a result, they don't know how to work, how to get up and report for duty day after day. They don't learn how to stick to a task despite the ups and downs.

Most of all, they miss the satisfaction of a paycheck in return for work. If work organizes life, as President Clinton has said, then multi-generational welfare dependency has robbed families of a precious resource.

There are serious flaws in both the House and Senate versions of this legislation. Foremost among them, in our view, is removal of a federal guarantee of cash assistance for poor children. Often called an "entitlement," this feature of the system protects state budgets from the vagaries of the business cycle. By folding welfare funds into block grants, Congress will be giving states important flexibility -- but also imposing hard financial limitations in lean economic years.

Democrats won some important victories, retaining a federal guarantee of food stamps for the poor and preserving Medicaid coverage for people who might lose it. But they failed to win approval for assistance to legal immigrants and for a provision allowing states to provide vouchers and other forms of non-cash assistance to families exceeding the time limits for cash grants.

Unless House Republicans push the final version further to the right, President Clinton will be tempted to sign this bill. Even if he wields his veto a third time on welfare reform, the terms of the debate are proof that Republicans have scored on welfare.

Pub Date: 7/25/96

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