TWO CENTURIES AGO Tom Paine recommended a national welfare program for England and America. As he put it in the ''Rights of Man,'' public welfare ''is not of the nature of a charity, but of a right.'' Not so in the America of 1996, where President Clinton has signed a bill to dismantle the Federal welfare system.
In 1792, in promoting a national public-assistance program, Paine wrote, ''I speak an open and disinterested language, dictated by no passion but that of humanity.'' His passion for humanity was his hallmark. He was best known for the stirring words he used to rally the troops during the American Revolution: ''These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.''
Paine could have been speaking of how the president and the Congress have now denied welfare as a right to the poor, especially children, by emphasizing work requirements. The new law resembles the Poor Laws of Paine's time when the poor were forced into workhouses because the government refused to take care of them.
But then Paine was far more progressive than today's Congress and president. For Paine, the community had the moral responsibility to care for its less fortunate citizens: ''There are two classes of people to whom the laws of England are particularly hostile, and those the most helpless: younger children and the poor.''
Who among the senators and representatives, not to say the president himself, has ever suffered the cruelties of poverty? Paine felt its sting, and he recommended several programs to prevent it. The most controversial was a cash payment to all poor people, a welfare check from the government to alleviate their poverty and to allow them to send their children to school.
The way out of poverty
Education was key. The children of poor people were to learn to read, write and master skills to escape poverty. ''A nation under a well-regulated government,'' he wrote, ''should permit none to remain uninstructed.'' In addition, he advocated social security for the elderly and grants for newlywed couples, both at their marriage and when they bore children. Paine also wanted government to give poor people a burial stipend.
Do all this, he said, and ''the Poor Laws, those instruments of civil torture, will be superseded.'' Have we now returned to the sort of Poor Laws that old Tom Paine thought he had helped drive into oblivion more than 200 years ago? It is a new time to try men's souls.
Jack Fruchtman Jr. teaches politics at Towson State University. He is the author of ''Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom.''
Pub Date: 9/04/96