AMONG the politicians in Washington, the welfare debate has generally been long on bombast and short on substance. Partisans of the right dream of abolishing welfare entirely for the able-bodied, which is Charles Murray's prescription in ``Losing Ground.'' At the least, they want welfare recipients to sing for their supper by participating in ``workfare'' programs. Their counterparts on the left insist that a welfare check is a right that should come with no strings attached. They disdain the idea of forci ng welfare recipients to work in modern-day slavery. These speeches slide past one another, leaving the federal government in a state of policy paralysis. Indeed, the one initiative aimed at encouraging welfare recipients to get jobs, the Work Incentive Program, is gradually being starved to death by the Reagan administration.
Away from Washington, however, the ideological logjams are breaking up. With welfare rolls and welfare bills rising, the cycle of welfare dependency seemingly impervious to economic recovery, ancient political enemies are coming to the realization that the old programs serve neither those who collect the benefit checks nor those who pick up the tab. They've stopped slam-dunking each other and begun designing strategies with the pragmatic aim of moving those on welfare into decent jobs. For some of thes e new programs, the results -- measured in terms of new jobs -- are encouraging.
California's recently adopted welfare reform legislation goes considerably further. It is the rarest of political acts, a genuinely radical piece of social engineering that just might work.
The ambitious venture will invest up to a quarter of a billion dollars annually in those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Some 175,000 now on welfare, mostly mothers of school-age children, will be asked to look for employment. If they don't make it on their own, they'll get help from the state.
The guiding principle is choice. The California plan provides welfare recipients with up to two years of on-the-job training, subsidized private employment, or vocationally oriented community college instruction. Those who remain jobless will pay off their welfare checks by working part-time for the government. But unlike the punitive workfare programs, which typically pay minimum wages for make-work, these jobs pay wages equal to the average California starting salary, now over $5 an hour, for work aim ed at priming the jobholders for the private market. After a year on the government payroll, the training cycle starts all over again.
This isn't a punitive idea. It turns out, to what should have been the surprise of no one, that most people value working because they value the self-respect that earning their own income can generate.
The state's help goes beyond training to cover the job-seekers' child care and transportation expenses. As part of the welfare package, there's a commitment to spend $134 million annually in after-school care for children of working mothers. This care venture for welfare children is, far and away, the biggest social program aimed at the poor that has been enacted during the term of conservative Republican Gov. George Deukmejian. It may be the biggest such initiative adopted anywhere in the country durin g the past decade.
Politically, almost everyone emerges a winner from this welfare reform. Passage of the bill is an early Christmas present for Governor Deukmejian. He has been in trouble -- a recent statewide poll showed him trailing his likely Democratic challenger -- and this legislation gives him the symbol of workfare to run on.
Democrats gained at least as much from the bargain. They have deflected the charge of being ``soft on welfare,'' a growing concern among California voters. They've also secured a handsome array of state-of-the-art education, job-training, and child-care programs.
``Republicans came to realize that people on welfare weren't shiftless but lacked essential skills,'' said San Francisco assemblyman Art Agnos, the liberal Democrat who shepherded the measure through the Legislature. ``And the Democrats learned that it was no sin to ask people to work. This is what the poverty programs of the 1960s should have looked like.''
Not everyone is thrilled, though. Republican right-wingers routinely opposed to anything that costs money grumble that Deukmejian gave away the store. They wanted tax cuts this year, not child care. And some liberal Democrats fear that welfare recipients will be scared off the rolls -- or driven off -- to keep costs down. They're unconvinced that softened penalties for the uncooperative and appeal rights for recipients who regard themselves as abused will be enough protection.
The biggest worry is whether, in a state with an unemployment rate exceeding 7 percent, the promise of finding jobs for those now on welfare -- to say nothing of the prediction that this program will eventually save the state a quarter of a billion dollars each year -- isn't just smoke and mirrors.
It's plain that some people will stay on welfare no matter how well they are trained. Yet at least they'll acquire the self-sufficiency that comes from holding a job, even a workfare job. As the Democratic legislator who represents the poor black community of Watts argued passionately during the state Senate debate, the real goal of the reform bill isn't saving money, though that is certainly the hope. The aim is to help instill a sense of self-respect in people who had given up on themselves. That's no t a liberal or conservative goal of government. It's the mission of a humane government.
David L. Kirp, a professor at the Graduate School of Public Policy, University of California (Berkeley), writes frequently on social policy topics.