Welfare Reform Is Still on Track, Clinton Aide Says

PRESIDENT Clinton told the National Governors' Association Feb. 3 that he would fulfill his campaign pledge to make welfare "a second chance, not a way of life" by appointing a White House task force within 10 days to study how to overhaul the nation's welfare system.

Twenty-three days have elapsed since the president's pledge and no task force has been formed yet. The delay has led some reform advocates to question the Clinton administration's commitment to changing the welfare system - a pledge that helped establish candidate Clinton as a "New Democrat."

But Bruce Reed, one of the president's senior advisers on domestic policy, insists that welfare reform is "very much on track." He attributes the delay in naming the task force to the fact that lengthy background checks meant nominees for top jobs at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) were announced only this week.

Mr. Reed says that the welfare-reform task force, which will have about a dozen members from different federal departments, will be announced soon. The group will produce its recommendations by early this summer and send them to Capitol Hill after the president's health-care package is completed, he says.

The president's welfare plan is expected to include:

* A work requirement after two years of job training.

* An increase in the earned income tax credit to help the full-time working poor.

* Tougher child-support enforcement.

* Federal support of state welfare experiments.

The task force will be made up of committed welfare reformers, Reed says. President Clinton is likely to chair the task force himself, and Reed expects to be one of the members.

Donna Shalala, the secretary of health and human services, is not expected to serve on the commission. Robert Rector, a Heritage Foundation Scholar, says her absence is significant because she is "clearly opposed to reform." Reed, however, insists that Shalala, as a member of the president's team, will implement the president's program. Her absence, he says, is due to the fact that the commission is being composed of staff at the assistant secretary level.

HHS will be represented on the task force by the department's newly nominated assistant secretaries - Harvard University Prof. David Ellwood and Mary Jo Bane, New York's welfare commissioner. Both Mr. Ellwood and Ms. Bane are academics who have written extensively about the need to change the welfare system.

Although the basic outline of Clinton's welfare proposal is clear, his task force will have a formidable task in fleshing out the contentious details.

For example, what would happen to welfare recipients who refuse to attend job-skill training programs after two years? Conservatives favor tough sanctions for those who refuse to attempt to find a job. Liberals, by contrast, favor provisions in existing law that call for those who don't enter "workfare" to lose only a small portion of their benefit checks.

The other contentious issue is over what kind of jobs welfare recipients could get. Conservatives argue that welfare recipients should be forced to take even minimum-wage work in the private sector or, failing that, go to work for local public-works departments. On the other hand, "a lot of liberals think they're dead-end jobs that are a waste of money," says Steve Scott, a scholar at the Urban Institute in Washington.

Ironically, the only area where liberals and conservatives agree may be the hardest to get through Congress.

Both sides say that long-term welfare recipients need plenty of support services - including child care, health care, job training, and schooling - to enter the work force. However, both sides also say that this would cost at least $4 billion. Reed says that Clinton would not ask for a tax increase to pay for this plan, making it extremely difficult for Congress to finance welfare legislation.

As a result of those difficulties, and the president's full economic agenda, the welfare-reform task force is unlikely to see any of its proposals adopted in the near future.

"I don't see it happening sooner than next year," says Rep. Robert Matsui (D) of California, chairman of a House Ways and Means subcommittee that oversees welfare. "We don't want to move too fast. We need to take a great deal of time for deliberation and to form a consensus."

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