Changing the course of America's 53-year-old welfare system is as clumsy as turning a battleship around in a bathtub. But if a majority of the House of Representatives agrees with the basic provisions in a bill the Senate approved late last week, that change probably will occur before year's end. ``The important story here,'' says Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, ``is that we've begun the process, and it's only just beginning, of turning around attitudes'' on welfare. For the first time the national government's emphasis would be on helping or, if necessary, forcing able-bodied adults who receive welfare to eventually obtain jobs instead.
This change, sporadically debated for 20 years in Washington, would follow the lead that many states already have taken in instituting plans to trim the welfare rolls. In a number of different forms, states are operating experimental programs that, in part, require welfare recipients to prepare for work and then take a job.
``This is a major reversal ... among Democrats about work and welfare,'' Mr. Besharov says, a view with which many Democrats privately agree. ``Republicans would have voted for this many years ago.... The rhetoric is changing, and it's going toward work.''
Many liberals have come to the realization that conservatives have been correct in charging that, for many welfare recipients, the current system perpetuates dependence.
Many liberals similarly have come around to the conservative view that reciprocal responsibility is necessary: Not only must government aid those who cannot help themselves, but welfare recipients must be required, in return, to seek work when their circumstances permit.
Both liberals and conservatives note that the times have changed since 1935 when Uncle Sam instituted the welfare program, which is jointly financed by the states and federal government. No longer are most recipients welfare widows with young children who can be expected to stay at home. Today most adult recipients are divorced or never-married women with children, for whom today's job market offers opportunities.
But whether the Senate-passed measure ends up as law or on the legislative scrap heap depends on a Senate-House conference committee. Its job is to work out a compromise between the Senate measure, which would cost an estimated $2.8 billion over five years, and a $7 billion House bill. Many Republicans are adamantly opposed to several provisions in the House measure, on grounds they are too expensive and encourage dependency.
``The real question now,'' says Leslie Lenkowsky, president of the Institute for Education Affairs, ``is whether the House Democrats will be prepared to compromise their position.'' If they will, Mr. Lenkowsky says, ``then we'll have welfare reform. If, on the other hand, they'd rather have an issue [for the coming political campaign], then we won't.''
Lenkowsky is a former aide to New York Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Senator Moynihan is widely given credit for passage of the Senate bill, of which he is prime sponsor, because of his dogged pursuit in the past two years of welfare reform.
It is considered likely here that President Reagan will sign the final bill if it closely resembles the Moynihan measure. But ``everyone's fear is [over] what the bill will look like coming out of Congress,'' Besharov notes. If it is close to the more expensive House measure it probably faces a White House veto, which would be difficult for Congress to override.
Government welfare payments total approximately $15 billion a year to 3.7 million families.
Both the Senate and House measures would require states to establish education, training, and job-search programs for able-bodied welfare recipients, including mothers with children over three. Both would require that states provide child-care facilities while recipients are trying to get off the welfare rolls.
Republicans and some Democrats object to the House plan's provisions, which they consider counterproductive and expensive, that would encourage states to set higher welfare benefits by raising the federal share for states that do so. To make the Senate bill more palatable to Republicans and the White House, Democrats agreed to require that by 1994, 22 percent of each state's recipients must be enrolled in education or training programs.