Signing the GOP Bill Was One of Clinton's Big Mistakes of Term

WELFARE OVERHAUL

Tanned, rested, and ready, lame-duck President Clinton has set out to soar above Newt Gingrich's and his own ethical problems and carve out the role of national unifier, a la Teddy Roosevelt.

The budget, entitlements, and some modest education initiatives lie ahead. The first term - the prologue - lies behind.

Aboard Air Force One during his vacation trip, the president was asked by reporters what he considered the three worst mistakes of his first term. In the area of legislation, he cited only his failed health-reform proposal.

He did not mention the welfare overhaul, which split his administration. Peter Edelman, who resigned as assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in protest of Mr. Clinton's signing the Republican bill, has an article in a forthcoming issue of Atlantic magazine titled, "Bill Clinton's Worst Decision."

Leaving the rolls

At Monday's White House prayer breakfast, Clinton acknowledged that "some of you think I made a mistake when I signed the welfare-reform bill, and I don't." He went on to stress the need to create jobs for those leaving the welfare rolls.

But hardly a week after the welfare act went into effect, there are already signs of trouble. State welfare administrators are complaining that they are not being given as much freedom in using block grants as they expected. The president boasts of a 2.1 million drop in the welfare rolls in four years, but what happens to those leaving welfare is not clear.

In California and Massachusetts, where Republican governors were fast off the mark on workfare programs, the results so far have been disappointing.

Too little change

According to the Los Angeles Times, in California a two-year independent study found that the "Work Pays" program contains faulty assumptions, and that there was little or no change in the behavior of recipients facing cuts in their cash benefits.

In Massachusetts, The Washington Post found that although welfare rolls have been reduced, only about half the adults who have gone off welfare have found jobs. And only 15 percent of private-sector jobs designated for them have been filled.

More than 250 teenage mothers, who lost benefits because they wouldn't live with their parents or return to school as required, have simply dropped out of sight.

These are only early portents. The major welfare cutoffs lie two years ahead, soon enough for the "unifier president" to think again about the program he still champions.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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