Reports that President Reagan was planning to talk about welfare reform in his State of the Union message last night caught the interest of many New Yorkers. And while nearly everyone -- liberals, moderates, and conservatives -- seems to agree that it is time to take a close look at welfare, there will doubtless be a great debate over what should be done.
``If nothing else, it's a call to action,'' says Georgia McMurray, deputy general director of the Community Service Society of New York. She says she doesn't know anyone who can hold up the current system as very beneficial to its recipients. But like many in heavily Democratic New York State, Ms. McMurray is not sure she will like what a Reagan-appointed task force would come up with.
``I want to hear what the President will say,'' she said before his speech. ``It is fair to say, given the track record of his administration, that [a commission] will not be open to a variety of views.''
But there is enthusiasm from other quarters. State Sen. Owen H. Johnson (R) of Babylon, Long Island, says New Yorkers will welcome the debate. Senator Johnson, who is chairman of the standing committee on social services, points out that the state Senate has been very aggressive in proposing reforms.
``We've met resistance, but we have some reforms in law,'' he says. ``And even [Gov. Mario M. Cuomo] has made a 180 degree [with a recent `work not welfare' proposal].''
Mayor Edward I. Koch of New York City, who notes that welfare fraud here already has been cut through various administrative actions, believes that it is worthwhile to look at reform, says a spokesman. While Mr. Koch does not always agree with President Reagan, a presidential task force would spark national debate on the issue.
``Now is a good time to look at what welfare is intended to do, and what it does,'' says Leland T. Jones, assistant press secretary to the mayor. He adds that Koch is a firm believer in workfare for the able-bodied poor, that New York City and State already have programs in place.
New York gets federal money for various programs. Aid to Families With Dependent Children expends a monthly average of $165 million on 1.1 million families. Half is federal money, and state and local governments evenly split the rest.
New York State and local governments also provide a general assistance grant to individuals who do not qualify for federal aid, a program that Senator Johnson advocates cutting.
In addition, the state gets a monthly average of $78 million in food stamps from the federal government for nearly 1.8 million people, and $85 million in social-security income for 332,362 individuals. The feds also contribute half of the $570 million a month for medicaid going to 1.2 million here.
Governor Cuomo's ``work not welfare'' program would offer job training and education to welfare recipients. It would target women with children under six. The proposal would include $3 million for day-care programs, says a spokeswoman at the state's Department of Social Services.
Emanuel Tobier, a professor of economics at New York University, points out that New York City -- or any big city -- is seeing a growing number of poor people, often minority, single women with children. ``The idea that people should be trained to be in the labor force is right,'' says Tobier.
Society has to be demanding, he say. But money is needed for such programs, and the supporting services that would go with them, such as day care. He says it is ``two-faced'' to talk about reform while declining amounts of money are being spent.
Some people worry that the Reagan administration will represent the welfare population as one in need of ``new moral assumptions.''
``We are fighting politics and ideology,'' says McMurray.
But Johnson says officials have known for years that the welfare system was not necessarily helping families -- particularly black families -- stay together. If the President mentions religion or morals in his State of the Union message, he will probably be criticized, Johnson says.
``But without a moral background, this won't stop,'' he says.