Washington maps better road for welfare

Ideas for welfare reform are swirling through the Washington air like falling leaves in the winds of autumn. The leaves mark an ending, but the welfare ideas herald a beginning -- the start of what promises to be a lively debate here next year among welfare specialists and politicians over how to reform a welfare system with which everyone is dissatisfied. It is a debate that may well lead to significant reform next year.

Many would-be welfare reformers, both conservative and liberal, agree that the system must be restructured to strengthen the family. Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, co-chairman of a study group looking into welfare reform, says he personally advocates ``restructuring government social programs around the hub called family.''

The programs, he told a recent breakfast meeting with reporters, should be reordered so ``they reinforce, rather than tear apart, families.''

One important aspect of keeping families together, say Rep. Harold Ford (D) of Tennessee and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, is providing Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) payments to eligible families whether fathers live in the home or not.

Approximately half the states, which make many of the eligibility rules for welfare, forbid payments if the father is present. Mr. Ford, Mr. Moynihan, and others say this is counterproductive: It encourages families to break up so mothers and children will be eligible for welfare funds. Ford and Moynihan unsuccessfully pressed both this year and last for a law that would require payments to be made whether a father is present or not; they intend to try again next year.

Some proposals would seek to give the federal government more responsibility for welfare programs; Washington now shares responsibility, including funding and rulemaking, with the states. Sen. Daniel J. Evans (R) of Washington, author of several welfare-reform bills, says that underlying his proposals is the decision to ``move the basic responsibilities for the safety net, for welfare, to the federal level.''

That's a hotly controversial proposal. Anna Kondratas says she thinks the proper role for the federal government is not to provide the whole net but to ``plug the holes of the safety net'' -- meeting needs that cannot be dealt with by private sources, state or local governments, or by the individual. Government has a definite helping role, she says, but the emphasis in social programs should be shifted so that individuals receive a different message: that they, not government, are primarily responsible for helping themselves.

Mrs. Kondratas is coauthor of a book on welfare reform to be published next year; she is also a member of a working seminar on the Family and American Welfare Policy, chaired by Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute. Until recently she was a health and welfare analyst at the Heritage Foundation; she is now director of the office of analysis and evaluation of the Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service.

There is one major point on which liberals and conservatives agree: Welfare recipients should be required to obtain jobs. ``The American people,'' Governor Babbitt says, ``will not support a welfare state that does not have reciprocal obligations.'' If recipients lack the necessary skills, they should be helped by government to get them.

Yet some experts sound a cautionary note. Workfare -- despite its promise -- is not an instant or easy solution, they say. Bradley Schiller, a professor at American University, points out that workfare programs are very difficult to supervise. Despite the current balleyhoo for workfare, he says, relatively few people are actually enrolled in such programs across the United States.

Some specialists emphasize that no program that treats all welfare recipients alike is likely to succeed. The poor are ``not homogeneous,'' notes Alice Rivlin, an economist with the Brookings Institution and a member of the Novak task force. Different kinds of programs may be required, she says, to encourage or require welfare recipients to obtain work.

Many welfare recipients ``require only modest intervention'' by government or private agencies, says Barbara Blum, to be boosted back into self-sufficiency. But others, she says, require long periods of help, often in several areas. A former welfare commissioner of New York State and former president of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, Dr. Blum is now president of the Foundation for Child Development.

Mrs. Kondratas says welfare programs need to be restructured to put more emphasis on pulling long-term welfare recipients up to the point that they can be self-sufficient. She notes that at any given moment half the adults receiving AFDC payments have been on welfare for a protracted time; experts generally agree that this so-called underclass is growing.

The people most likely to be long-term welfare recipients, as she notes, are those who first went on welfare as teen-age mothers. How to solve this problem? Since it seems so entrenched, she says, ``you need a tougher approach'' than the present one.

She would let each recipient receive AFDC cash payments for a specific period, perhaps for four or five years; most women get off the rolls well within that time frame. But the change would send a message to teen-agers. They would ``know they couldn't marry welfare.''

During each teen's welfare years, Kondratas says, there should be ``strong education and training components,'' so recipients would be given the tools needed to find employment. If, at the end of four or five years, they are still on welfare, society should shift its aid to them and their children, by providing foodstuffs and help in housing -- but not money.

Both Kondratas and Blum say unmarried teen fathers get a free ride in the current welfare system. Both would require unmarried fathers of children receiving AFDC to contribute to their support. ``We should experiment with identifying unwed fathers,'' Kondratas says, help them get jobs or job-training if needed, and garnishee a portion of their wages: ``It would send a different social message about what social priorities are, and what individual responsibilities are toward children.''

Those who have studied welfare generally agree that it should be revised so that a coordinated approach, which they consider essential, is used to help the hard-core AFDC poor climb out of poverty. ``This is a multiproblem,'' Kondratas says. ``It needs to be attacked on many fronts . . . public health, education, welfare. . . . If you're only dealing with one of the problems, you're going to leave people'' behind in poverty.

Rep. Jack Kemp (R) of New York says government should provide funds for child care, transportation, and medicaid for people working their way off welfare.

Two other elements are widely agreed upon. One is that no ``quick fix'' exists to today's welfare problems; Representative Ford says ``sustained commitment'' is required. The second is that the welfare system should be reformed so that it offers recipients a way out: ``We have to have programs,'' Kondratas says, ``that provide them with a way out of the situation that they are in.''

Welfare reform is a subject in which plenty of areas of disagreement exist. But there are now major areas of reform, and a broad willingness -- not previously present -- to discuss problems and possible solutions. And that is what gives both conservatives and liberals hope, after 20 years of dissatisfaction, that next year reform finally may come to the welfare system.

Second of two articles; the first appeared Oct. 21.

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