Why Welfare Reform Is Such A Long Shot

As the 104th Congress convenes, seething with ferment over the Republicans' Contract With America, no social program seems riper for radical overhaul than the nation's floundering welfare system. GOP legislators, historically hostile to welfare dependency, want tough new eligibility rules and time limits. President Clinton, vowing to fulfill his promise to "end welfare as we know it," is trying to keep pace.

But welfare reform faces an uphill slog. Despite the tough-sounding rhetoric emanating from both Democrats and Republicans, deep ideological differences divide the two camps. It will take astute political navigating to keep welfare revision from meeting the same fate as health-care reform: a collapse into a heap of acrimony.

WAY STATION. Already, the chasm is wide. True, President Clinton and the Republicans both want to convert welfare into a temporary way station that will steer beneficiaries into the workforce. But beyond that, their paths diverge sharply. Democrats, who see the social safety net as a flawed but noble party legacy, want recipients to get job training and seek to cushion their entry into the work world. Republicans want far deeper cuts.

In an attempt to regain the initiative, Clinton is summoning congressional leaders and governors of both parties to a "working session" after his State of the Union address in late January. In the meantime, though, House Speaker Newt Gingrich & Co. have elbowed their way ahead. The new speaker is pressing hard to limit the federal role and is negotiating with governors to make his package more state-friendly.

Moreover, House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) has scheduled welfare hearings to start on Jan. 13--before Clinton's powwow. The tough tenor of the hearings is presaged in the committee's agenda: welfare and illegitimacy, benefit cutoffs for legal immigrants, and discretionary block grants instead of entitlements.

Both parties are playing to the public's frustrations with high taxes and big government. Aid to Families with Dependent Children--what most people commonly refer to as welfare--comprises just 1% of federal spending. Add in food stamps, Medicaid, and other programs, and Washington's spending on the poor still amounts to only 13% of the federal budget. Yet polls show that the public considers welfare a far larger budget problem than it truly is.

Nothing illustrates the parties' strategic differences better than the projected costs of their respective plans: The GOP claims its reforms will save $40 billion over five years, with $22 billion coming from denying legal immigrants access to 60 federal welfare programs. Clinton's plan, unveiled last June, would actually boost spending, by some $9.5 billion over the same period, to support job training and child-care assistance for welfare moms.

Such numbers reflect other policy differences. The GOP would deny aid permanently to any children born out of wedlock to moms under age 18. By contrast, Clinton's proposal would continue benefits to the underage mother if she lives at home, attends high school, and makes a good-faith effort to establish paternity. And Clinton would pay minimum wage to moms in subsidized jobs; the GOP would simply require recipients to work off their welfare benefits. In such low-benefit states as Mississippi, this would have a welfare mom working 35 hours for $120 a week, less than minimum wage, says the Washington-based Center for Law & Social Policy, a liberal research group. The GOP also would set a five-year, lifetime limit on AFDC.

While politicians wrangle over such provisions, the future of 5 million families receiving AFDC and the record 27 million Americans getting food stamps is on the line. The Health & Human Services Dept. claims Gingrich's plan would drop half of the 9.5 million children on AFDC from the program. Already, the stridency of the early welfare skirmishing has alarmed poverty experts. "I don't think the American public is willing to see women and children sleeping on sewer grates," says Judith Gueron, president of Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., which studies welfare programs.

STATES' FIGHTS. Paradoxically, Clinton is looking to Republican governors to help moderate the Contract With America's stand. It's the governors, after all, who will be stuck enforcing many of the Contract's radical changes. With so many new Republicans in statehouses, the Clinton Administration hopes the incentives for GOP moderation will increase.

Indeed, governors privately worry about the consequences of deep cuts. Both camps agree that "the federal government ought not to mandate a lot of conditions that the states find nearly impossible to meet," an Administration official says. But the Contract With America envisions turning all 15 nutrition programs into block grants to the states and then subtracting 5%. Rather than entitlements--which automatically go to whomever meets the criteria--the programs would become appropriated and subject to yearly budget cuts. That means governors of states with weak economies could to forced to slash welfare spending at precisely the time recipients need the help most.

With so much distance between Clintonites and the Newtonians, welfare reform faces tough prospects for passing in a highly partisan legislative session. Besides, GOP leaders insist they will tackle congressional reform, tax cuts, and budget-slashing before turning to social reengineering. Even if they can make room on the docket for welfare, and find a sliver of common ground, it's doubtful whether Clinton, an inveterate do-gooder, can bring himself to swallow some of the Republicans' harsher measures. Clinton "will be so happy to have something called `welfare reform' he will consider almost anything from the Republicans," predicts Douglas Besharov of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. But that's a bet few would put any money on.

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