A Democratic Effort to Remake Welfare

In Massachusetts, the legislature has radically reformed the system - but still kept a safety net

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ON Feb. 10 Republican Gov. William Weld signed a sweeping reform of the Massachusetts welfare system. The Commonwealth is now waiting for federal approval to implement it. Below, Sen. Theresa Murray of Plymouth, Mass., one of the architects of the plan, explains why she and her fellow Democrats, who hold majorities in both houses of the state legislature, overhauled the system.

Most people agree that the welfare system in the United States does not work. What people cannot agree on is how to fix it. The expression ``the devil is in the details'' certainly applies to welfare reform, because ultimately it is about details.

The goal of reform is to reward individuals who work and demonstrate initiative, and penalize those who fail to participate in improving their lives. In making changes, we have recognized that it is the system that is a failure, not necessarily the individuals trapped within it. The old system provided perverse incentives. If you worked, we cut your benefits, dollar for dollar. If you worked too many hours, we cut you off the system. If you had additional children, we increased your benefits. Given those rules, we should not have been startled by the unfortunate results.

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In our reforms, we looked not to hurt recipients, but to institute a common-sense set of rules and standards for receiving aid:

* We reward work by letting recipients retain more earned income.

* We require all able-bodied parents of school-age children to work a minimum of 20 hours a week in private or community-service jobs.

* We create private-sector jobs by converting cash assistance and food-stamp benefits into funds that subsidize employers who hire recipients.

* We eliminate benefits for additional children.

* We limit benefits to 24 months during a 60-month period.

* We require teenage mothers to complete high school and live at home or in structured settings as a condition of receiving benefits.

* We demand that mothers cooperate with the state to identify the fathers of their children.

We believe that private employment, coupled with better enforcement of child-support laws, will lift people out of poverty.

Public officials are never punished on election day for being too tough on the poor. As a woman, I am sometimes startled by the terminology that becomes associated with this debate. Some versions of reform are deemed too soft and weak. It is unfortunate that there is an element of bullying in this debate, considering that the target of the ire is women and children.

But no less striking is the posturing by so-called advocates of the poor. They lobby the legislature to preserve or even expand a failed system. They deliberately disseminate misinformation. They coach recipients who testify at hearings to say their job is to raise their children. They tell us they are entitled to benefits, and that we dare not make them work.

Legislators must ignore extremists on both sides and use common sense.

Eliminating additional benefits for additional children was a difficult issue for me, but it is a policy that recognizes conditions in the real world. I hear from voters statewide that they do not receive a pay raise for each new child. They do get a tax break - but so will welfare recipients who work. The time limit on benefits restores the original intent of relief: support for those in crisis. Our support should be temporary to help people readjust after a death, illness, abandonment, or other emergency.

The most important provision requires teen mothers to live at home and complete high school. We must reach the newest and youngest victims of this system. We must instill in them the notion that government aid is accompanied by strict adherence to rules. The families of teen mothers cannot be allowed to shirk their responsibilities either. These are children having children: Being a mother does not make you an adult.

Our program maintains a safety net for the truly needy by exempting the disabled and those caring for the disabled. Additional benefits for additional children will be provided for victims of rape, incest, or other extraordinary circumstances. The two-year time limit does not begin until the recipient's youngest child, at the time of entry into the system, reaches the age of two. Extensions may be granted based on the recipient's cooperation and job-market conditions.

Our plan has been criticized by the so-called advocates for the poor who say they will do all they can to thwart it. Critics at the other extreme say we did not go far enough. They want all recipients to work and want benefits for teens eliminated, but they are unwilling to pay for such a program.

As a member of the Democratic Party, I feel it is essential that we maintain our commitment to help the deserving poor. I do not agree that government has no role in helping those in need. It is wishful thinking to expect churches and community exclusively to care for the poor. However, it is also essential for Democrats to recognize a failed program. Even programs with the best of intentions must be periodically reviewed and overhauled if they do not work, or worse, add to the problems they are designed to alleviate.

A broken system, 60 years in the making, will not be repaired by a single legislative program, no matter how comprehensive. But Massachusetts has taken a bold first step that can and should be followed by others who seek to reform welfare. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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