THE Senate has decided to postpone its debate on welfare reform, and that could be a good move. It may give lawmakers time to focus their thinking on the purposes of reform - not just to cut costs, or to get tough with "welfare moms," but to help millions of Americans break free of dependency and become more productive citizens.
There's no simple way to carry out this purpose. But if there's a single, common element in reform efforts, it's "work." Every plan on or around the legislative table emphasizes moving people from welfare to jobs.
The Republican proposals do it with hammer-blow clarity: five years max and you're on your own. The Democratic alternative would build in some softeners, such as vouchers to cover housing costs for families with children even after their welfare time limit is up, and guaranteed child care for those parents who find work.
Fundamental to fair-minded reform is the recognition that welfare recipients face a very tough job market. These are some of the country's least employable people - especially if they've been on public assistance for an extended time. Many have no prior work experience and less than a high-school education.
Still, experiments indicate that the transition to work can be made, given the right combination of incentives and help.
Two California cities, Riverside and San Diego, engineered lower welfare costs and higher earnings among former recipients by strictly enforcing work requirements and undertaking vigorous job-search programs. Other parts of the country have long experience with "workfare," which ties public aid to public service jobs.
The dean of congressional thinkers on the subject, Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, underscores our imperfect grasp of how best to end a dependency that has its roots in far-reaching changes in family structure. He rightly cautions against moving too quickly to scrap a system that provides an economic safety net for millions of children. At the least, child-oriented provisions in the Democratic bill should be worked into final legislation.
Whatever passes Congress this year won't be the final word on welfare reform. It will be an ongoing process, and it will work best where the people involved are treated as potential assets - with God-given abilities of value to themselves and the country.