WELFARE is headed toward reform. But there are a number of forks in that road, and congressional wisdom will be severely tested in choosing the best way to approach the dual goals of less dependency and lower costs.
The humane way to reduce welfare dependency -- as opposed to arbitrarily cutting rolls -- is to help recipients find employment. Efforts along these lines have been under way for years. Currently, some states combine job-related programs with ''caps'' on people's stays on welfare.
Both Republican welfare reformers and the leading Democratic thinker on the subject, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, back a requirement that 50 percent of welfare recipients be enrolled in training or work programs.
It's far from clear, however, that an emphasis on work leads quickly toward that other goal -- saving taxpayer dollars.
Researchers have found that successful attempts to boost the earnings of people on welfare usually entail increased costs to taxpayers, since job-placement and training are expensive. On the other hand, even relatively low-cost job programs sometimes succeed in reducing the welfare caseload, thus saving the public some money. Often, however, those who leave the rolls under these circumstances would have been likely to leave anyway. The thorny problem is how to help the most disadvantaged, least employable welfare recipients find meaningful work.
Some states, including Iowa and Vermont, have long and relatively successful track records with welfare-to-work programs. But their approaches aren't likely to apply in other, more urban parts of the country. State experiments with reform ought to be given the widest possible latitude -- as both the Republican plans and Senator Moynihan's plan recognize.
Moynihan would stop short of totally defederalizing welfare, in contrast to the block-grant plan backed by his GOP colleagues in the Senate. He'd retain the status of Aid to Families with Dependent Children as a national entitlement, arguing that the program's original purpose of providing a federal guarantee of aid for poor children shouldn't be cast off.
That's a note of compassion, but those who favor greater control by the states aren't necessarily devoid of compassion. Above all, the motive for reform should be to help people discover their worth and dignity as productive citizens. If that purpose is well served through the reform process, savings will follow.