Support for the needy

LAST February, in his State of the Union address, President Reagan called for a comprehensive study of the welfare system. Now that the studies he asked for are coming out, it's clear that the system is not in for a major overhaul, at least not anytime soon, but rather for some continued tinkering.

The current rallying cry is for creative experiments on the state level to see what really works - over time - to help get people off the welfare rolls and into economic independence.

``Letting the states handle it'' has often been many an administration's tactic for shifting responsibility away from Washington; and the call for ``experimentation'' can be like the call for ``more study'' - a stalling mechanism.

This time, though, this may be the best approach. It has support from both conservative and liberal camps.

But as states proceed with their ``experiments,'' it bears pointing out that the welfare system does not exist in a macroeconomic vacuum. We can't expect people to ``get off welfare'' in any great numbers until the economy creates jobs for them to go into - jobs with futures, jobs on which children can be supported.

And even if the jobs are there, the poor won't be able to accept them without education. The days when high school dropouts could still expect to support a family are gone. Many entry-level jobs from which the marginally skilled could work up into something more remunerative have disappeared; today's low-wage jobs seldom have a future.

Variations on the ``workfare'' theme are enjoying broad support. But workfare is not a panacea, nor will it make more than a slight trim of the welfare list - nor even that without substantial expenditures up front on training.

Better enforcement of court orders for child support - including interstate cooperation - would help get some people off the welfare rolls. Government agencies need to reach out to teen fathers as well, to hold them accountable for supporting their children, and for those not in a position to do so, to help get them to the place where they can assume their parental responsibilities.

For many welfare recipients eager but fearful about taking their first steps out into the labor market, the prospect of loss of medicaid coverage should they land a job is daunting. The system needs to be altered so that more of the working poor could participate in medicaid, perhaps paying premiums on a sliding scale as their income rises. Good-quality child care is another critical need.

Then there is the matter of housing. Tax reform will mean no tax for many at the bottom of the income scale, and lower rates for many more. Unfortunately, that same tax reform has also removed much of the incentive for developers to put up low-income housing. Voucher systems have their problems, and tend not to lead to the construction of new housing.

Welfare involves a tangle of issues. Here a little, and there a little, may be the best approach for now.

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