Toward Welfare Reform

A PROPOSAL to reform the federal welfare system in the United States, announced by President Clinton on Tuesday, has received a lukewarm-to-cool reception from Congress.

Despite its shortcomings, it deserves better. The plan correctly centers itself on the concept that welfare should be ``a stepping stone, not a way of life.'' It also assumes, correctly, that the majority of welfare recipients would rather earn their living than be on the dole. It would counter the current system's tendency to split families by lifting restriction on payments to those with two parents present. It puts a focus on discouraging teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births. It would make more difficult attempts by absent fathers to evade child-support payments. It emphasizes job training. By providing subsidized or public-service jobs to those making good-faith but unsuccessful efforts to find work even after their eligibility nominally expires, it avoids more-punitive elements of other plans, which eliminate benefits altogether after a fixed period.

The plan's shortcomings are not insignificant. Child care, a primary concern for the working poor, particularly in single-parent households, had to be scaled back for budget reasons. This provision must be strengthened. And while subsidized jobs or public-service work at minimum wage may help sustain skills learned through job training, minimum-wage jobs seldom provide sufficient income to cover health care and child care.

No one expects the measure to pass this year or wholly in its current form. On Capitol Hill, health-care reform remains the top domestic priority. Yet the interim can be used by the administration and by members of Congress to reinforce several points about welfare reform with the public.

Among them: Reform is unlikely to bring vast, rapid reductions in welfare rolls. A study released this week of a California program, whose elements are similar to those the White House has proposed, found that the number of people escaping the welfare cycle was only 3 percent higher for those who had taken advantage of training, education, and job placement services than for those who did not use those options. But the economic prospects for that 3 percent were brighter - they earned 22 percent more than those who did not participate in the intensive training and placement activities.

Whatever welfare-reform package emerges, it will remain the most visible statement about how the country cares for its least fortunate. A package that supports families, trains for meaningful work, and reinforces self-reliance can send the right signal.

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