IN contentious debate this week, House Republicans are attempting the most sweeping overhaul of federal poverty assistance in 60 years. If they succeed, the New Deal notion that destitute citizens are ''entitled'' to government support will be gone.
The House votes late today or tomorrow on a bill that would replace dozens of federal programs such as cash welfare and child-nutrition provisions with five block grants.
Republicans argue that policies ranging from family assistance to food stamps have only hurt the people they were designed to help, locking them in perpetual poverty and fostering illegitimacy.
The block grants, they say, would save about $60 billion over five years and allow states to design programs to meet their specific needs.
But moderate GOP members worry the bill is too harsh: Some are seeking further changes on the floor, others hope the Senate will soften it later. The moderate vote -- about 40 strong -- is critical. Democrats are pushing two alternative bills, and few Democrats have shown support for the Republican legislation.
The Clinton administration, meanwhile, says the legislation punishes children and is too weak on work requirements. ''The current House Republican bill ... gives states a perverse incentive to cut people off whether or not they have moved into a job,'' President Clinton wrote in a letter to Speaker Newt Gingrich on Tuesday.
The goal of the current reform effort, both by Republicans and Democrats, is to alter the behavior of recipients by discouraging illegitimacy and encouraging work.
The Republican bill blocks cash benefits for children born to unwed mothers under the age of 18 and requires adults to engage in ''work activities'' after receiving benefits for two years. The Clinton administration, alternatively, advocates immediate work requirements.
The bill would end as many as 2.2 million legal immigrants' eligibility for cash welfare, food stamps, or Medicaid. The school-lunch program, the main element of one of the block grants, will no longer be guaranteed to poor children and food-stamp benefits will no longer keep pace with inflation.
Social policy experts are divided over whether the behavior-based reforms are effective.
Lawrence Mead, a welfare expert at Princeton University, in Princeton, N.J., says they are a step in the right direction. ''Poverty and welfare problems are mostly rooted in the coping problems that adults on welfare have,'' he says. ''Most recipients need a paternalistic structure that combines benefits with requirements.''
Liberals and conservatives in Washington, he says, have been loathe to impose discipline on welfare recipients, hoping either that government or the market would solve their problems.
''The public wants a more generous but demanding welfare system,'' he says. ''More states are recognizing that the problem [recipients have] is a lack of authority.''
Wisconsin's welfare program, which many experts hold up as the leading example of successful reform, has shifted from training people for jobs to forcing them to find jobs. In return, the state provides support services such as child care. But Evelyn Brodkin, a social policy expert at the University of Chicago, is skeptical.
''Welfare is not an appropriate instrument for teaching behavior. Forcing people off welfare has a negative impact on the health and stability of families.''
Keeping a job
Professor Brodkin argues that recipients have trouble holding jobs because the low-end job market is perpetually unstable, not because they have poor work habits. ''If you cut welfare to force people into the market, that doesn't mean the market is ready to receive them,'' she says.
Brodkin argues that it is still too early to judge the success of Wisconsin's program, but says studies show that the most effective job-training programs have been voluntary, where recipients can hold the states accountable for the services they provide.
In an attempt to improve the work requirement in the GOP bill, Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut and three other Republican women introduced an amendment that would prohibit states from requiring parents to work unless child care is provided. A GOP poll released Monday showed that two-thirds of respondents supported such a provision.
But Robert Rector, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, and Doug Besharov, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, both view the politics of work-based welfare reform with a bit of humor. Neither the Republicans in Congress nor the Clinton administration, they argue, has been strong advocates of such reform.
''If Clinton is claiming to be tougher on work, it is a farce,'' Mr. Rector says. ''And the Republicans have only symbolic work requirements in their bill that could be satisfied by one hour of job work [such as training or searching] per year.''
Mr. Besharov argues that both parties have seen how effectively Republicans governors such as William Weld in Massachusetts and Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin have used work-based welfare in their reelection campaigns. Both parties are now scrambling to champion the issue in Washington.
''The Democrats have never supported mandatory work,'' he says. ''The Republicans said they'd pass welfare ... and just want to deliver the bill.''
Both the Republican bill and the Clinton administration's proposal from last year would require that about 17 percent of recipients be involved in work activities by the year 2000.