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The Buyout of the Governors

Tuesday, February 18 1997; Page A12

HOUSE REPUBLICANS have put out a report meant to quash the notion that last year's welfare bill was a retreat from federal responsibility for the poor. It projects that, for at least the next several years, states will have more federal money to spend per welfare household than they would have had under prior law. The figures are offered as proof that there's no need for the funding the president has requested to make up for the cuts in other forms of assistance in last year's bill. Rep. Clay Shaw, chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources, says the numbers also "show that welfare reform is already having major impacts," because one reason the funds per family are up is that the number of families on the rolls has been heading down.

But the figures show nothing about welfare reform except that the governors who signed off on the bill last year exacted a high though short-term price for the long-term weakening of the protections that the federal-state program formerly provided. In time, the federal retreat will take its predictable toll on the states and poor alike, but by then the members who wrote it and the governors and president who acquiesced in it mostly will be gone. They will have achieved "reform"; the wreckage will be someone else's problem.

This was never just a welfare bill. It was an effort to roll back federal responsibility for the poor much more generally. Initially it included almost all the principal forms of federal aid. The president insisted Medicaid be dropped. But the bill that he agreed to sign still lowered the national income floor by making deep structural cuts in the food stamp program, arbitrarily cut legal immigrants out of all the assistance programs and narrowed a program of cash assistance to low-income families with disabled children.

Only then did it get to welfare. In return for some extra money up front, it limited future federal responsibility by telling the states they could no longer expect federal matching funds for as many families as they had on the rolls. Instead they would get block grants and be free in ways they had not been before to reduce their own spending without loss of federal funds. Everyone understood the rolls were finally headed down, as you might expect after five, now six successive years of economic expansion. What happens when the economy next turns down and the welfare rolls, or what would have been the rolls under the old rules, turn back up? The reserve fund in the bill is a sop to conscience that won't cover the cost. What happens when it turns out, as it will, that welfare mothers can't find work but have exhausted their eligibility under the time limits in the bill? The governors already are back, asking that the definition of work be elasticized.

Mr. Shaw regards it as a sign of success that the welfare rolls are down. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it's also a sign of neglect. That's the direction in which this bill ultimately points. The figures put out the other day – the buyout of the governors – should not be allowed to obscure that.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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