Sign the welfare bill

July 26, 1996|By Mickey Kaus

WASHINGTON -- Change the welfare system, and the underclass will change, too. This has been the great hope of radical welfare reformers, left and right. It was also the hope of Bill Clinton in 1992, when he pledged not simply to ''end welfare as we know it,'' but to use welfare reform to ''break the culture of poverty and dependence'' in the nation's ghettos.

Mr. Clinton's welfare proposal, belatedly unveiled in 1994, would have required work, even of single mothers, after two or three years on the dole. If private-sector work was unavailable, community-service jobs (and child care) would have been provided. What he is now being asked to sign is a Republican bill that replaces AFDC with ''block grants'' for states to spend on aid programs of their own devising.

So why should the president sign it? The bill is a nasty piece of work in many respects, made nastier by the cynical desire of some Republicans to bait Mr. Clinton into a politically damaging veto. But it has one virtue that overrides its flaws: It will, finally, start the process by which America's underclass problem can be solved.

Most of the current conservative boasts about block grants are unconvincing. I do not believe, for example, that state governments are so efficient that vast administrative savings will be realized if only Washington butts out of the anti-poverty business.

Nor are states so different that no ''one-size-fits-all'' national welfare plan can do the job. In designing a program to employ and assimilate the underclass, there is every reason to expect that one size will, in fact, fit all. I just don't know what size that is.

And there is the single compelling justification for block grants: They allow the sort of radical state experimentation that will tell us what works and what doesn't. I suspect that something like Wisconsin's costly approach of replacing cash welfare with last-resort public jobs will prove the winning formula. But nobody knows for sure because it hasn't been tried.

I don't know if a public jobs program will inevitably degenerate into make-work. I don't know what portion of the welfare caseload (a tenth? a third?) just can't hack working, even in a public job. I don't know if tough work requirements for single mothers will really cause young women to delay pregnancy until marriage.

''Cold turkey''

And what of the harsher ''cold turkey'' time-limit schemes? Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., has predicted ''3.5 million children on the streets,'' largely because the bill contains what appears to be a five-year time limit on assistance. But this cutoff is phony. It bans states only from using federal money to pay for benefits beyond five years. States could use their own money for the benefits and spend the federal dollars elsewhere -- an accounting shuffle.

In all likelihood, even conservative governors will prove relatively cautious when it comes to cutoffs, since voters will not reward politicians whose polices result in women and children living on the streets. The Clinton administration has also won concessions requiring states to keep spending their own money on the poor (''maintenance of effort'') and providing a $2 billion ''contingency fund'' for use during recessions.

Do the bills contain enough money to replace cash welfare with work? Probably not, but again, no one knows. It costs more to provide a single mother with a job, supervision and child care than to send her a check. On the other hand, the mere threat of work may cause people to leave the rolls for private jobs, freeing up some of the necessary money.

The bill (as of this writing) contains at least $2 billion more for work programs than current law. David Ellwood of Harvard, President Clinton's former top welfare expert, estimates that there will be enough money to finance real, work-oriented reforms in those states that now spend a lot of their own money on welfare, but not enough in low-spending states.

Assuming he's right, New York, California, Michigan and others will have enough money to give work a chance. If it becomes clear that successful reform requires more cash, low-spending states will begin to demand the money. Given the current political and budget climate, that is the most realistic strategy for eventually getting adequate funding for work-based reform.

Opponents of the bill claim that states can conduct all the experiments they need under waivers from the Department of the Health and Human Services. And it's true that President Clinton has given states unprecedented freedom. It's also true that most state governors haven't undertaken even those work-oriented reforms that federal waivers would permit. But that's the point.

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