WELFARE reform is a nice phrase that politicians of both parties have been rolling off the tongue with bipartisan approval. But once the rhetoric gets down to details, there goes the bipartisanship. The bottom-line question of what to leave in and what to take out in order to balance the budget by 2002 has turned consensus into confrontation.
When Republican budget-cutters moved against a prized centerpiece of Democratic social programming, Aid to Families With Dependent Children, the White House retaliated by coining the phrase, ``Aid to Dependent Corporations,'' to describe federal subsidies to dairy farmers, sugar growers, and timber tycoons.
Sounding more fiscally conservative than old-fashioned Republicans, the Democrats are asking: How is Newt Gingrich's majority going to pay for the estimated $40 billion to $75 billion these subsidies will cost, to say nothing of making up for the revenue lost from a proposed 50 percent reduction in the capital-gains tax - benefits that favor affluent America? Democrats fear that the phrase ``welfare reform'' will become a euphemism for dismantling of safety nets assembled over the past 30 years.
For example, federal food and nutrition programs, funded at $40.8 billion, will be cut by an estimated 13 percent, according to present plans. As the states assume the administration of cash grants, uniform nutrition standards for school lunches will no longer apply. Of 27 million food-stamp recipients, 6 million will lose their eligibility. These cuts constitute only a first installment, with cuts nearly as severe to follow.
It would be an exaggeration to say that, in the name of welfare reform, food is being taken from the mouths of the hungry to finance those corporate subsidies and compensate for the reduction in the capital-gains tax. Still, there appears to be a disturbing inequity in the choice of targets by the trimmers. Why should Medicare, Medicaid, and welfare programs be fair game - facing a prospective slash of $112 billion - when defense spending is untouchable?
Now is the time to ask these questions. And beyond a line-by-line consideration of what stays and what goes, a more general debate is called for. The argument that government aid works against individual independence is not to be dismissed out of hand. But Americans have long been known for their generous and caring hearts. This trait of national character transcends political parties. A budget balanced on the backs of those in need would be a hollow victory.