Anguish and hope over welfare reform Democrats divided: Resignation of key federal officials points to burden on the states.

September 13, 1996

NOTHING ILLUSTRATES the anguish that welfare reform has caused in Democratic ranks more than the breakdown in the friendship between two power couples -- Bill and Hillary Clinton, responding to the imperatives of the presidency, and Peter and Marian Wright Edelman, adhering to their lifelong crusade on behalf of the poor.

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mrs. Edelman were leading figures in the Children's Defense Fund; Mr. Edelman had been promised judgeship by Mr. Clinton that never came.

When President Clinton signed the controversial Republican-crafted measure ending "welfare as we know it," Mrs. Edelman said his signature "on this pernicious bill makes a mockery of his pledge not to hurt children." When Mr. Edelman resigned this week as assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, he said the bill goes in "the opposite direction" to his 30-year effort to reduce poverty.

Along with Mr. Edelman, another assistant secretary, Mary Jo Bane, also resigned over principle, thus adding to the exodus of brain trusters in the department just before a difficult implementation phase is to begin. Mr. Clinton has promised to fix the "bad bill" he signed. But that will depend on his winning re-election and the make-up of the next Congress.

Americans should be grateful that there are officials so dedicated to their mission that they will risk their careers. But such personal commitment to a system that has manifestly failed, causing cycles of trans-generational dependency that leads to social breakdown of the family, should not be allowed to block needed reform. Cries of doom may be exaggerated.

Maryland is preparing to implement a program that will require welfare recipients to seek work in two years and will end assistance after five years. It is not expected that persons now receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the core welfare program, will be adversely affected -- at least in the beginning. Food stamps and aid to immigrants, in which the bulk of $54 billion in federal savings over six years is concentrated, present more pressing problems that need early correction.

State officials have been granted significant new authority to care for the less fortunate within their borders. It is they who will have to eliminate the ills of the old system while fulfilling society's obligation to help its neediest citizens. It is the definition of "help" that is crucial. "Help" that makes people perpetual wards of the state should be eliminated. "Help" that moves them to creative and self-reliant citizenship should be the goal.

Pub Date: 9/13/96

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