Pricey Choices for Welfare Reform

Under Clinton proposal, forcing those on the dole to work could be expensive - and slow

A DRAFT of the Clinton plan to ``end welfare as we know it'' could spell dramatic change for some teenage mothers. The proposed program is designed to help - and push - welfare recipients toward work within two years of going on the dole.

The catch: Five years after the plan becomes law, according to current calculations, only about 2.7 percent of welfare families would be working, with another 1.5 percent off the dole completely.

The speed at which the White House is considering phasing in its welfare reforms is what one Democratic congressional aide calls ``glacial.''

But even rolling out welfare at that pace leaves President Clinton with some sticky choices about how to pay the $15 billion cost for those first five years. The basic difficulty for reformers is the irony that squaring welfare with popular American values by introducing a work requirement is far more expensive than the current system of simply writing checks.

A conservative Republican plan developed in the House of Representatives, for example, is about $5 billion more expensive than the Clinton plan over five years.

The White House working group on welfare reform submitted its proposal to the president this week.

Clinton is expected to make the remaining decisions and submit a bill to Congress within the next six weeks or so.

Putting a two-year time limit on welfare is perhaps the single leading campaign position that defined Clinton as a ``new Democrat'' - that is, a Democrat attuned to middle-class values and not just redistribution of wealth.

Many moderate and conservative Democrats are more eager for Clinton to claim his stake on the welfare issue than on health care. The reason is that some of them, like Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, see a deeper pending crisis in the welfare system and its dependency trap than in the health insurance system.

But welfare reform is not going to be easy to pass. The last major welfare reform, the Family Support Act of 1988, took three years to pass ``and that was a consensus bill'' without significant opposition, notes a Capitol Hill aide.

Liberals and advocates for the poor are concerned that financing for the program will come out of other programs for the poor, such as aid to noncitizen immigrants, and that some participants will end up working yet receiving less money than now.

Those concerned that welfare has created a dependency trap for many families see the Clinton plan as too slow to phase in to match the urgency of the problem.

Conservatives see the Clinton plan as more an expansion of welfare than a shift toward work.

``This is MORE welfare. This is an expansion of welfare,'' says Rep. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a Republican leader on the issue. He accuses the Clinton plan of allotting $14 in new welfare spending to every $1 for creating work.

Some pessimistic Democrats are already imagining the Republican ads countering the Clinton plan: After spending $15 billion at the end of five years, there will be more people on welfare and only 2.5 percent of them will be working.

Former Rep. Thomas Downey (D), a lobbyist active on welfare matters, is not pessimistic that the administration will reform welfare, but ``it's got to be gradual in nature.'' The administration and Congress, he says, ``simply don't have the money to do very much, very fast.''

The White House has not made public the proposals forwarded to President Clinton, but a recent working draft marked ``confidential'' but widely circulated here shows $5 billion of the $14.8 billion cost of the program over five years going to extend child care to working poor families at risk of slipping onto the welfare roles without it.

Roughly 4.8 million families now receive $23 billion a year in Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the main welfare program. The average benefit for a family of three was $388 a month in 1992, down from $644 (in 1992 dollars) in 1970.

Of the families entering the welfare rolls for the first time, about a third will stay on the dole for two years or longer, and nearly half will accumulate two of welfare time within five calendar years, according to Greg Duncan, a professor at the University of Michigan.

The Clinton plan proposes a lifetime limit of two years on welfare, probably applying to all mothers born after 1972 and perhaps expanding to older mothers later.

Except for mothers with disabilities, severely disabled children, or children less than a year old, welfare would become a job training and education program with child care provided as necessary.

By the end of two years, mothers would be required to work between 15 and 35 hours a week as necessary to earn their welfare benefits at minimum wage.

For those who don't find jobs that remove them from the welfare system, the plan would subsidize them in private or public sector jobs for a still undetermined period.

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