AFTER a ''welfare summit'' that President Clinton summoned this weekend with a couple dozen governors and congressional leaders, the president cited welfare reform as the nation's most urgent business.
He will get little argument on that from Republicans who now dominate both Congress and the statehouses. Reforming welfare is one of the next items of business on the House Republican ''Contract With America.''
So how did welfare -- a relatively small chunk of the federal budget -- climb so high on the national to-do list?
The main welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), provides some household income to about 14.1 million people, 9.5 million of them children. That total is up from 10.9 million people in 1988.
But the problem of growing numbers is not a cost problem exactly. The $22.3 billion paid out by the state and federal governments in AFDC benefits in 1993 is actually lower -- after adjusting for inflation -- than the total value of benefits in 1975, when only 11.1 million were on the welfare rolls.
Nor is it the cost of welfare bureaucracy. The administrative costs of running AFDC are about the same in real, that is, inflation-adjusted, dollars as they have been since 1970, when the welfare population was half its current size.
The generosity of the welfare check has been on a steady decline for decades. The average monthly benefit today is $373 dollars. The $178 the average welfare family received in 1970 would be worth $676 in current dollars. So AFDC benefits have been cut nearly in half over the years.
That's not the whole picture. With food stamps and publicly subsidized housing, a family's welfare income can amount to nearly triple the AFDC check alone. And one form of welfare really does present a burgeoning cost problem for both state and federal budgets. Medicaid, which is public health insurance for the poor, cost a total of $132 billion in 1993. Along with Medicare for the elderly, it represents one of the fastest-growing costs of government at any level.
But as Mr. Clinton found out through his long and thwarted effort to revamp health care last year, health-care costs are not at the heart of the matter either.
''The concern of most Americans about welfare is not financial,'' said conservative activist and former US Secretary of Education William Bennett last week. ''It's moral. It's about what kind of country we're becoming.''
Clinton struck a similar note in his State of the Union speech last week when he cited the ''failed welfare system'' as a leading cause of a declining sense of common responsibility.
The current debate has roots in a 1982 book by Charles Murray arguing that welfare not only was ineffective, it was nurturing social behaviors -- such as unwed teen pregnancy -- that created poverty. In the years since, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York has made the view respectable among Democrats that welfare has indeed helped create a culture of dependency.
Pollsters from both parties report that Americans now see the welfare system as a leading symbol of a government that is ineffective and out of alignment with their values. Two years ago, the federal budget deficit was the public's symbol of government out of control. Now that the deficit has abated, the symbol has changed. The view of government hasn't.
Part of the shift is that the dominant concerns of Americans about their public life have shifted from jobs and the economy to crime and safety. Concern over crime, Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg often explains, is part of a larger unease over the unraveling of moral order reflected in everything from obscene rap lyrics to the dramatic rise of unwed parenthood.
Most of these social upheavals and problems are most concentrated and visible in the urban neighborhoods around public- housing projects, where welfare is a major source of sustenance. Some argue that race helps shape opinion too. Although two of three poor Americans is white, and most welfare recipients at any one time are white, the most visible image of long-term welfare dependency in the United States media is black.
Most players in the welfare debate are pulling in the same direction. From Clinton to the new GOP governor of Texas, George W. Bush, politicians want a system that promotes more personal responsibility and leads toward work. Everyone involved wants to reduce teen pregnancy by making sure welfare is not a ticket to independence through motherhood.
Still, serious differences remain in how to reach these goals. Governors want maximum freedom to design their own programs, but the federal government still pays an average of 55 percent of the AFDC bill. House GOP leaders want to stop traditional cash payments to unwed teenage mothers altogether. Clinton favors additional spending for job training and child care to make the transition to work more feasible.
However these differences are resolved, most players see fundamental welfare changes more likely this year than any time since the Johnson administration.