Welfare Dilemmas

DURING his 1992 campaign, President Clinton proposed a two-year limit on welfare benefits as the cornerstone of national welfare reform. Now the White House has given two states approval to experiment with new policies.

In Wisconsin, a program called ``Work Not Welfare'' will place a two-year limit on benefits for indigent families with children. And in Georgia, women who have additional children after receiving welfare for two years may have their benefits capped.

The experiments in both states bear careful watching. At a time when welfare rolls stand at record levels, attempts to reduce soaring costs represent laudable goals. Yet as advocates for the poor point out, any effort to encourage self-sufficiency must also include such assistance as job training and child care.

Programs to encourage responsibility have gained momentum - and achieved varying degrees of success - in recent years as states have tied welfare benefits to education, marriage, and preventive health care. In Wisconsin, which has had a long history of innovative social policies, Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson concedes that his latest plan is ``revolutionary.'' But at a time when even middle-class families face hardships because of layoffs and unemployment, it could be particularly cruel to deny essential aid to those who, even in better economic times, find it difficult to get jobs.

Contrary to stereotypes that characterize welfare parents as long-term dependents, most recipients eventually move out of the system. In New York State, for example, the average family receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children remains in the program 2 1/2 years.

Last month, when the Conservative Party in Britain suggested that impoverished single mothers should no longer be given preference in the allocation of public housing, the Archbishop of Canterbury came to the women's defense. He stated that they needed support and help rather than ``beating with big sticks,'' and called for ``a decent honorable society where we care for one another.''

The archbishop's comments serve as a compassionate reminder on both sides of the Atlantic that however urgent the need to cut welfare costs, a ``decent honorable society'' cannot turn its back on its most vulnerable families. Punishing children for their parents' failure to find or keep jobs could cost far more in the long run than any savings it might produce in the short run.

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