Welfare-Reform Sentiment Sweeps Through Statehouses

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IN his campaign for the Georgia primary Tuesday, George Bush used a television commercial vowing to "change welfare and make the able-bodied work."

Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, in his campaign, describes a similar quest to restore "a simple, dignified principle: No one who can work can stay on welfare forever.

Welfare reform has not ignited sparks as a presidential campaign issue as yet in either party. But views like those expressed by Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton are, in fact, changing welfare programs around the country.

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In statehouses, where most welfare programs are enacted, pressure to cut budgets and long-simmering beliefs that the welfare system is not working have combined to force a rethinking of aid for the poor. Some of it has taken the form of simple cuts in benefits. Some of it has led to innovations designed to create incentives to help - or prod - welfare recipients into the working world.

During the middle and late 1980s, new social-science research began to form a consensus around what many middle-class Americans had already concluded: Welfare was fostering a long-term dependency among large segments of the poor.

Liberals and conservatives alike agree on the problem of perverse incentives that mean a mother receiving Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) and Medicaid literally cannot afford to take an entry-level job or marry a man who has one without losing income and benefits.

"The real problem is that the welfare system punishes people for working and punishes people for getting married," says Mark Greenberg, senior staff attorney of the liberal Center for Law and Social Policy.

In a similar vein, policy analyst Robert Rector of the conservative Heritage Foundation says: "What we've been paying for is nonwork and single motherhood."

Many of the changes under way around the country take a conservative direction, however.

To Mr. Rector, the shift follows a decline in concern over material poverty and a growing concern over a social, or behavioral, poverty from unwed motherhood to lax child supervision.

"Our attempts to deal with material poverty with check-in-the-mail welfare has in fact exacerbated behavioral poverty," he says.

Many more liberal voices express skepticism, though, about the new moves to change the behavior of the nonworking poor. Kent Weaver of the Brookings Institution sees "a move to both claim credit for doing something about welfare and to avoid making budget cuts elsewhere" by cutting welfare benefits.

"A lot of places have what appear to be personal responsibility initiatives that are really just cuts," notes Mr. Greenberg. "They play on the hostility to stereotypes of welfare recipients."

In California, for example, Gov. Pete Wilson (R) has proposed saving about $40 million by capping family size so that once a parent receives AFDC, it does not pay to have more children. He proposes saving another $40 million by restricting the benefits of new migrants to the state, reducing the lure of the poor to a state with generous welfare checks.

But these savings are dwarfed by the estimated $660 million to be saved from across-the-board 10 percent cuts in benefits to all families and an additional 15 percent cut in families with able-bodied adults.

Rector of Heritage defends even the straight benefit cuts in California as an improvement. Since California's welfare benefits already put recipients well above the poverty level, he argues, the system works as a dependency trap.

The most comprehensive state welfare reform, which both liberals and conservatives consider a serious effort, has passed into law in New Jersey, but awaits federal approval.

The New Jersey system changes the way that earned income is treated to make it easier to begin work. It improves the AFDC eligibility for stepchildren, so that marriage is less costly to welfare benefits. It cuts benefits for children born into a welfare home, so that the incentives work against new pregnancies. And it includes stronger education and training for the poor.

The one feature that caught national attention was the cap on family size, says Greenberg, and other states have proposed reforms with only that element.

Moves in other states include proposals linking welfare benefits to the school attendance of children, as in Wisconsin, or to child immunization, as in Maryland.

At the national level, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York introduced a bill this week to quadruple funding for job training and education for welfare recipients, a program created by the Family Support Act in 1988. The program can currently afford only to serve about 1 in 9 eligible people. This is the ground that still separates right and left in the welfare debate. Conservatives are unprepared for major additional investments, even in work-oriented welfare reform.

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