The task of ending "welfare as we know it" - to use a Clinton phrase - isn't over yet. But, without a doubt, the welfare reform law enacted in 1996 has radically changed the way society takes care of its indigent.
The nation now has 56 percent fewer people on welfare than it did six years ago, a startling achievement that has uplifted many urban communities. Welfare is no longer an entitlement. It's a temporary backstop until a person can find work. The reforms have brought dignity and independence to millions.
The law is up for renewal this year, and President Bush laid out his proposals this week to keep the momentum going. He has asked Congress to make the requirement to work even tougher than in the '96 law (see story, page 2).
By 2007, Mr. Bush wants 70 percent of heads of households on welfare to be in the workforce - up from the current 50 percent rule. Also, the number of hours in work, or work-related activity, each week would rise from 30 to 40 - a full workweek.
Objections to Bush's enhanced work incentive have been loudest from advocates for the poor, many of whom still see welfare as an entitlement, or a matter of justice more than an expression of public compassion.
They ask, not unreasonably, how the president expects all this work to materialize in a sluggish economy. Others point out that the easy progress to reduce welfare rolls already has been made: Those with the greatest desire to leave welfare or who are most able to find and keep a job already are off the dole.
To nudge those clinging to welfare, the president will sustain funding for child care, transportation, and drug rehab - factors that often impede the quest for work. He'll allow states more flexibility in coordinating such services. He'll also allow 16 of the required weekly work hours to be taken up by work-related training.
Giving states the freedom to innovate and design programs that include needed services is crucial. It should increase the prospects that people's needs will be individually assessed, adding an important note of respect.
Striking a tougher note, Bush also proposes to close a loophole in the law that lets states reduce the percentage of welfare recipients that must be working. For every 1 percent drop in its caseload, a state could reduce the work requirement by 1 percent. Hence the current 50 percent rule was whittled away.
Many states are leery of a tougher work requirement, but they like the plan's flexibility. Moderate Democrats in the Senate have offered their version, which would hike the work requirement to 60 percent, not 70 percent, of those on welfare.
The need for public assistance won't go away entirely. Many people are a long way from being able to hold down a job. But tying assistance for those who can work to a diligent effort to find a job elevates this often-disparaged program. Ideally, treating people as productive members of society rather than as its victims is a way to tap human potential. That serves both the individual and the nation.