WITH a presidential veto threatened, it's still unclear what scope welfare reform will have. But it's been clear for months, even years, that the states are not waiting for Washington's lead in this matter. When a joint Senate-House bill emerges, Mr. Clinton should follow his earlier pledge to ''end welfare as we know it,'' sign the bill, and let states get on with new approaches.
Dozens of states are already experimenting with workfare, payment caps, and other means of reshaping the system. Nearly 40 have been given waivers by the Department of Health and Human Services to push beyond the normal bureaucratic blueprint.
Typical waivers have allowed states to link continued welfare payments to a recipient's efforts to find work. Some have lifted the limit on assets a recipient can have and still get aid - so that owning a car to reach a workplace, for instance, wouldn't disqualify someone. The goal: Do whatever is needed to encourage people to work their way off the dole.
Most governors anticipate federal welfare reform that will remove the waiver hurdle altogether and give states an even freer hand. But some in Washington are balking at the prospect of no-strings-attached welfare block-grants to the states. States would be required to maintain a basic level of support for the poor - now pegged at 75 percent of current levels in the compromise legislation emerging from House-Senate conferees. And federal support for programs like school lunches and food stamps is likely to be maintained, since in many cases it helps welfare mothers make the switch to job training and jobs.
States should otherwise be given ample freedom to pursue their efforts to shape assistance programs that act as a bridge to productive, working lives. State government today generally doesn't deserve the Scroogelike visage some critics of welfare reform persist in pasting on it. States and localities have a direct interest in seeing reform work.
One problem likely to raise its head is how many other mandates Washington may impose. Block grants will represent a cut in federal funding. So, too many costly rules could sink some of the varied state experiments. And, in the other direction, some states have objected to strict cutoff times on welfare payments, such as the five-year limit in the current reform bill. They see it as another form of hand-tying mandate.
For all their enthusiasm for reform, however, the states face critical, as yet unanswered, questions: Can work-based reforms reverse chronic welfare dependency? What happens, in the absence of a federal entitlement, when economic downturns sharply increase the need for public assistance? Will states hardest hit be able to win revisions of the block-grant formula?
In the short term, subsidies for job training or last-resort public job programs for welfare recipients will probably increase public spending, not cut it. But such approaches can change the personal outlook for individuals who've had no work experience at all.
Saving people, the basic purpose of welfare reform, is apt to be a lengthy business, not unlike school reform. And the results will be no less crucial to the future of American civilization.
Nearly 40 states are experimenting with ways to reshape the existing federal system.