After years of bitter disagreement, liberals and conservatives over the last few months have come together to reach an extraordinary consensus on the broad outlines of two important elements of welfare reform: mandatory ``workfare'' and the need to collect child-support payments from fathers. It's ``a happy marriage between liberals and conservatives'' on workfare, says S. Anna Kondratas, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, in a comment that could be applied to the child-support issue as well.
The consensus to which she refers comes largely because many liberals have slowly shifted their position: They now agree with conservatives that effective workfare and child-support programs are necessary to successful welfare programs.
In the workfare area, as both liberals and conservatives acknowledge, the question no longer is whether workfare should be instituted, but what kind of workfare program should be enacted.
Although much work would remain to be done, this new harmony of ideas holds the seeds for basic reform of the federal welfare system, which all sides are saying could finally occur within the next few years.
In addition, many liberals and conservatives are beginning to voice similar views on other welfare issues, such as requiring women who receive welfare payments to go to work when their youngest child is three years ago. At present the mothers do not have to seek employment until the child is six.
In words seconded by others, one observer notes that when conservative scholars sit around the table and discuss welfare issues -- as a group did here this week -- ``they are saying the same things that state welfare commissioners do, and they [the commissioners] are mostly liberal Democrats.''
Liberals and conservatives, however, still disagree on many important pragmatic questions, such as how large welfare payments should be, whether educational as well as job-training benefits should be provided to welfare recipients before they are required to take a job.
Yet the areas of concurrence are what is striking not only to outside observers but also to welfare specialists themselves, both liberal and conservative, as they privately acknowledge.
And the most important area, the one previously most hotly disputed, is workfare.
It was the focus of an afternoon meeting this week of the Working Seminar on the Family and American Welfare Policy, held at the American Enterprise Institute. The seminar is one of several task forces studying the overall welfare issue. It includes both liberals and conservatives, with the weight being toward the conservative end.
Broad but not universal agreement emerged that workfare is not an instant solution for the many problems of welfare systems, and that, to be effective, workfare programs must be built incrementally.
Bradley Schiller, a professor of economics at American University, insisted that his recent study of workfare programs in parts of some 30 states shows that ``no evidence'' exists that workfare has been effective in reducing the overall welfare case load, or in materially reducing the welfare costs to the taxpayer. ``We should at least confront the reality,'' he insists, ``that in the last four years, these programs have not significantly altered'' the welfare dynamics.
Professor Schiller's research indicates that despite all the ballyhoo about workfare, these programs are in place in only a relatively small number of counties across the United States.
Furthermore, he says, fewer than 2 percent of adult Americans who receive welfare payments actually participate in a workfare program. And those programs that do exist are having great diffciulty in being effective. Principal difficulties: finding jobs in which workfare recipients can be placed, and supervising properly these workers once they are in a job.
The challenges certainly are immense, agrees Barbara Blum, who speaks from the experiences of being a former commissioner of welfare for New York State and of having once administered a kind of workfare program. But the dimension of those challenges, she says in views with which other welfare specialists concur, argues for the necessity of phasing in workfare programs step by step. That is one reason that welfare experts are eyeing the new California workfare program, which began only this summer; it will take a full five years to move, gradually, to full operation.
Ms. Blum insists, in a view also broadly agreed with by liberals and conservatives alike, that it is far too early to judge that workfare is not working. States have been experimenting with workfare programs only since 1981, when the United States Congress for the first time gave them permission to.