THE ``war on poverty'' that President Johnson launched in the mid-1960s dramatically reduced the poverty rate in a couple years. But the poverty rate now is roughly the same as in 1966.
The welfare-reform plan that President Clinton proposed on Tuesday, even if passed by Congress, is not likely to transform the system anytime soon, despite an increasing number of Americans who see the welfare system as a symbol of expensive but ineffectual government.
But even some of the harshest, right-wing critics of the President's plan, such as Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, call it a ``tiny step in the right direction.''
On the left, and among people who design and run welfare programs, the concern over the Clinton plan is whether it is too bold - too blind a leap into untested waters that could grind down the poor even further. Over the past generation, the value of the average welfare check has dropped by nearly half.
The thrust of the Clinton plan is to begin to change the culture of welfare into a sort of compact where recipients are required from the outset to move toward work and thus break a disturbing pattern of welfare dependency.
The plan applies to younger mothers, those born after 1971 but who are over 18, and has them develop an ``employability plan'' with a caseworker to determine the training or education they need to move into a job. At the end of 24 months on welfare - a lifetime limit - the mother goes to work. The longest deferral for mothers with infants will be 12 months.
From the beginning, any eligible mother on welfare who is offered a job will be required to take it or lose her Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) grant. Those without work, when they hit the two-year mark, will move into subsidized jobs in either the private or public sector and will be required to show an active search for employment.
The White House is forecasting that by the year 2000, 14 percent of the mothers 29 and younger who would have been on welfare will be off the rolls.
In the world of welfare experiments, where change comes stubbornly, that would be substantial progress. In the current political environment, it is tame stuff.
Indeed, some governors are looking for far more dramatic shifts. Gov. William Weld (R) of Massachusetts is proposing a two-month limit on welfare benefits and promising to cut welfare caseloads by half. Paul Offner, the chief health and welfare counsel to the Senate Finance Committee, calls promises like this ``the worst kind of nonsense.'' Yet the antiwelfare mood in Congress is so strong these days that he is ``more afraid than ever before that politicians will not listen to practical research.''
Some of that practical research augurs well for the Clinton approach. A study released yesterday of California's Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN) program found that over the past two years the program succeeded in putting more welfare mothers to work, raising family earnings, and cutting the caseloads slightly.
``States can, absolutely, increase the numbers of people working,'' says Judith Gueron, president of Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, which conducted the study. On average, the welfare rolls were 3 percent lower after two years than for welfare recipients outside GAIN.
The Clinton welfare plan is unlikely even to come before Congress this year, with the health-care debate blocking its path. But Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute and a moderate Democrat, forecasts that the climate for the Clinton plan may be better next year, when Congress is almost certain to be a little more Republican.
``A lot of liberals in Congress are invested in the status quo,'' he says. Republicans are lambasting Clinton now for a too-timid reform plan with too much government subsidy.