The politics of welfare reform

July 26, 1996|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Ever since Ronald Reagan began excoriating ''the welfare queen'' a generation ago, politicians have recognized the volatility of the welfare issue with American voters.

The ''queen'' was a Chicago woman said to be collecting multilple welfare checks under different names -- and picking them up in a limousine. Her story, and many others like it, fed the resentment of middle-class taxpayers tired of seeing their money support others.

Resentment has grown as evidence accumulates of whole generations of the poor living on welfare while taxes rise. That anger is what candidate Clinton exploited when he promised in 1992 to ''end welfare as we know it'' and to force people who receive benefits to accept more ''responsibility'' for themselves.

Four years later, President Clinton is facing a put-up-or-shut-up moment. He must make a decision on welfare that could offer Republican opponent Bob Dole his best opportunity to gain some traction in his struggling campaign for the White House.

The Senate's 74-24 vote approving a reform bill suggests that a veto would be risky because the president lacks the votes to sustain it. But Mr. Clinton also faces a political risk if he signs a bill that goes as far as this one.

Although the final form of the reform will be settled in a conference committee, it is already clear that Congress is ready to vote to end the long-standing federal entitlement by abolishing the basic welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and turning it back to the states.

This change does not sit well with liberal Democrats in general and black political leaders in particular. They argue that the reason a federal welfare program was needed is that states could not be relied upon to support the poor adequately.

The disadvantaged have little political clout under the best of circumstances. What they do have has been exerted through the Democratic Party, many of whose leaders have moved to the right on the issue as taxpayer anger has made itself felt. This change in attitude is evident in the number of certifiable liberals among the 23 Senate Democrats who voted for the bill: Tom Harkin of Iowa, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Carl Levin of Michigan, and John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia. All are running for re-election.

Benefits for immigrants

Most liberals also balk at another provision of the bill that nTC eliminates most benefits for legal immigrants who have not yet become citizens. Indeed, that provision alone might give President Clinton grounds for a veto. He can argue that such a denial of benefits would be not only a repudiation of the American tradition toward immigrants but impossible to administer. Even angry taxpayers presumably would draw the line at people starving in the streets.

But if opinion polls are to be believed, most voters are so hostile to the system as it functions now that they are willing to try something different even if unproven. And the notion of turning it back to the states, presumed to be ''closer to the people,'' is clearly attractive.

A second reality for the president is that the Republicans will assail him if he fails to accept this bill after vetoing two earlier -- and harsher -- versions. As Senator Dole put it, ''You have one last chance, Mr. President; keep your promise and sign this bill.''

In fact, the notion that the welfare problem can be solved by turning it back to the states and applying arbitrary limits to benefits is probably fanciful. There are indeed many abuses in the system that have been there since long before the welfare queen. But the basic cause is a lack of jobs for the unskilled in the economy today and a lack of programs to provide those skills. To achieve that balance, the welfare program is going to cost more money in the short run for both child care and training for welfare mothers, something Mr. Clinton recognized when he originally broached the idea.

That is all fine print, however. The political question is whether the president dares to veto a welfare reform that falls far short of the idea.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 7/26/96

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