Welfare reform has been a topic of intermittent discussion for at least 20 years. But 1987 may actually see action on the issue. Some here believe that next year welfare reform may be what tax reform is today: the principal domestic issue in the nation's capital. By Dec. 1 a White House task force is to report to President Reagan on the nation's family and welfare policies. It is widely expected that one result of this probe will be a major presidential initiative on welfare reform by early next year.
But this week a group of congressional Democrats, led by Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan of New York and Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, stole a march on the administration. The Democrats introduced a bill that would effect substantial changes in the federal welfare system.
Under the proposal, four current federal welfare programs would be combined into a single program called the Work Opportunities and Retraining Compact. States would be required to establish a single job-training and education program.
For the first time, all welfare recipients, except those with children under six years old, would be required to enroll in job training and counseling programs as a condition to receiving benefits. The federal government would cover 70 percent of the job-training costs, with the states paying for the balance (they currently split such expenses evenly with Washington). States would be required to provide day care for the children of parents who need it in order to take advantage of education or training opportunities.
The Democratic proposal is in part an attempt to seize the political initiative on an issue that appears to be ripe for public attention. There has been increased talk both in Congress and in the administration about the need for welfare reform.
The Reagan administration is thought to favor a reduction in federal job training and counseling programs and increased emphasis on ``workfare,'' under which all welfare recipients would be required to take public-service jobs in order to ``work off'' their grants.
The Democratic proposal, while not altogther rejecting workfare, would put increased emphasis on job training and education for welfare recipients. The sponsors hope their approach will be regarded more favorably by the public, and they may see it as a campaign issue this year.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the additional job training provided in the Democratic bill would cost the federal government at least $945 million over five years. But the bill's supporters assert that by getting welfare recipients into productive jobs and off the welfare rolls, their program would cut federal welfare outlays over the long run.
The Democratic plan seeks to build upon the successes of several states that are reducing their welfare rolls by offering substantial education and job-training programs to adults receiving public assistance.
Welfare experts often cite Massachusetts as a leader in this area. Bay State officials say that as a result of the state's programs, more than 20,000 welfare recipients have been able to move off the rolls in three years. (Some observers believe, however, that Massachusetts's booming economy is also a principal reason for the state's success in cutting its welfare rolls.)
For the past five years the agenda of debate in Washington on many domestic social programs has been set largely by conservatives, often including the administration. Conservatives in general have sought to cut back on federal welfare funding, while liberals have battled to maintain the status quo.
Rumors about the direction being taken by the President's welfare commission lead liberals to conclude that the same pattern will be repeated next year. Liberals suspect that the administration will recommend letting the states run welfare programs as they wish, with the federal government's role limited to providing a lump-sum payment each year for distribution by the states.
The administration repeatedly has said no decisions have yet been reached. Nonetheless skeptics fear the net effect of administration proposals will be to reduce the amount of money Washington provides to welfare recipients, including funds intended to help them become self-supporting.
Liberal Democrats hope to change this pattern by their action this week of putting their ideas on the table first, rather than permitting conservatives once again to define the boundaries of serious discussion.
Over the two decades that welfare reform has been debated, the issues have drastically changed. In the late 1960s, when reform first was hailed as an idea whose time had come, discussion revolved around providing a guaranteed annual wage, or jobs, to welfare recipients. That idea lost favor in the mid-1970s, however, when results of several test programs indicated that a guaranteed income tended to reduce the desire of recipients to get off welfare and obtain work, just as conservatives had warned.
For the past decade there has been what some observers here describe as a truce between conservatives and liberals on welfare, with each side not wishing to reopen debate about reform for fear the other side would gain the upper hand in any changes.
During the 1980s the initiative in change has been with the states, which are conducting a number of disparate experimental programs ranging in type from Massachusetts's education-and-training approach to California's emphasis on workfare.