The Push for Welfare Reform

AMID all the excitement about ``transforming'' Congress under Republican rule, Newt Gingrich, the Speaker-apparent, and his conservative colleagues have also made sure to put some markers down on welfare reform.

We are hearing about plans to cut benefits to young mothers altogether and give federal money to states to build orphanages instead. We are hearing frank, untroubled acknowledgments that ``some people are going to fall through the cracks.''

This is a symbolic issue. ``Welfare'' runs a close second to ``foreign aid'' as the government program people most love to hate. Moreover, references to ``putting welfare recipients to work'' fog the fact that more than 9 million of the 14.3 million who get Aid to Families With Dependent Children are, in fact, children.

But that it is a symbolic issue does not mean it is unimportant. ``The welfare mess'' is a shorthand for a knot of issues related to a deeper malaise involving crime, hard-core unemployment, breakdown of the family, and dangerous cities.

Welfare reform is a similarly important symbolic issue for President Clinton, whose claim to be a ``new Democrat'' is based in part on a willingness to look anew at dysfunctional government programs.

The Democrats have needed to prove that they can govern, that they can make tough choices and say no to ``special interest groups.'' Had Mr. Clinton pushed through a welfare reform program that demonstrated these things, the Democrats might well still control Congress.

Now welfare, along with free trade, is on the short list (the very short list) of issues where both Republicans and Democrats see constructive cooperation as possible.

What is the motive for this push on welfare? The desire to minimize state intrusion and maximize individual liberty is deeply rooted in the national ethos. If Republican control of the Congress represents the expression of that desire after a period of more activist government, that is natural and understandable.

But if the ascendancy of hard-edged conservatism has to do with rugged individualism at the expense of any community feeling, every man for himself, it speaks poorly of the United States as a humane and decent society.

For years, the US has differed from its European neighbors in its commitment to the social safety net. But rugged individualism has long existed side by side in the American character with a strong spirit of volunteerism, as observers from Tocqueville on down have noted. The opportunity here may be for more community action, rather than government action, to address social ills: Strong neighborhoods can help keep young people away from crime; houses of worship can encourage ethics of responsibility and sexual restraint.

The ``malaise'' that welfare reform should seek to address will not be corrected simply by cutting recipients off at the knees. And not every social program is ``pork.''

Mean-spirited, punitive welfare ``reform'' would be simply wrong. Welfare reform motivated by a genuine desire for the economic empowerment of the poor, including the working poor, is what is called for.

For President Clinton and the Congress to work together to craft a welfare program that is hardheaded without being hard-hearted would be a real achievement.

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