Washington — What's been happening to a proposal of Rep. Harold E. Ford (D) of Tennessee is symptomatic of a problem that Washington, D.C., shares with the rest of the United States: Practically anything that starts out as a simple idea ultimately becomes complicated. And the basis on which it is finally accepted or rejected may have little to do with its original purpose.
Representative Ford's proposal would require all states to provide welfare payments to families that are otherwise eligible, but for the fact that the father is unemployed and living at home. The measure nearly made it into law early this spring, but it eventually fell victim to a congressional compromise on the budget. Now Ford plans to bring his proposal back for another round of consideration this summer.
States share with the federal government the cost of giving aid to families with dependent children. Almost half the states, however, refuse to provide funds to otherwise eligible children if both parents are living at home. The ostensible purpose is to discourage poor two-parent families from relying primarily on welfare, rather than wages, for income.
But Representative Ford says the policy encourages family breakup by forcing poor fathers to desert their families so that the children may obtain welfare benefits for food and housing. Ford calls this ``the single most notorious anti-family policy that we could have.'' He adds that the policy runs counter to President Reagan's stated commitment to pro-family policies.
Ford's proposal is not a new idea. In the late 1960s it was one of the changes that liberals insisted had to be included in broad welfare reform.
More than half the states made the change, authorizing welfare benefits to families with both parents at home. But the rest of the states did not. Hence the Ford bill, which passed the House last year but not the Senate.
Ford reintroduced the measure this spring, shrewdly appending it to a vital budget resolution. Some opponents protested that, given the size of the budget deficit, this is no time to spend additional federal money, as this proposal would do. Other critics said that every state should be free to decide for itself whether to adopt the idea. The Ford proposal prevailed, however, and was included in budget resolutions approved by both houses of Congress.
But it ran into opposition from the Reagan administration, which objected that it is not fair for Uncle Sam to impose additional expenses on states without their approval, and that each state should make the decision itself. Ultimately the proposal was dropped from the final version of the budget resolution.
Throughout the discussions no one had publicly mentioned the potential irony that concerned a number of observers: that although providing welfare money presumably would keep some families together, it might give others the impetus to split apart.
Gilbert Y. Steiner, a senior fellow in government studies with the Brookings Institution, citing experimental guaranteed-income and jobs programs in the 1970s, says ``some experimental evidence'' exists that a guaranteed income ``did result in a somewhat greater sense of [family] separation than was seen in a control group.''
Mr. Steiner notes, however, that if one consequence of providing funding to a previously impoverished wife is to end a marriage, ``then one must assume that it was a pretty fragile marriage to begin with.'' Whether there would be a similar result from providing welfare payments to intact families is open to conjecture.
Besides, Steiner argues, the idea of giving benefits to dependent children and their two parents because of unemployment ``is as defensible as providing benefits to children who are deprived of one parent.''
Finally, an unknown but presumably large number of families would be kept together because fathers would not have to leave so that their children could obtain money necessary for food.
Representative Ford plans to introduce his measure again, and is looking for a suitably urgent bill to attach it to this summer.
``We have to make sure that this administration lives up to those [pro-family] speeches, and the rhetoric that we're hearing from the President,'' he says.
But whether it becomes law this time will depend on the politics of the moment, on who the Senate and House conferees are, on what temporary alliances are struck, and -- if it gets that far -- on how important the rest of the bill is to the Reagan administration.