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Worse Than Welfare As We Know It?

By William Raspberry
Thursday, August 8 1996; Page A31

Is it permitted to utter a hopeful word about the welfare reform bill that President Clinton has reluctantly agreed to sign?

Virtually all the people I call friend are convinced that the legislation is an abomination that will make life tougher for those already struggling for their daily bread, saddle the states with new costs while reducing the federal money available to them and condemn a million additional children to poverty.

What is there to be hopeful about?

Let me say at the outset that I have a lot of problems with this bill, including the fact that it assumes the availability of jobs that may not exist and makes scant provision for child-care costs for those erstwhile welfare recipients who do manage to find work. Nor do I believe President Clinton, who rode into office promising to "end welfare as we know it," thinks this is a good bill. My guess is that, as with Bob Dole and his tax-cut proposal, he sees it as a politically useful idea – one that makes him seem tough and willing to carry out his commitments, that sort of thing.

But if I doubt Clinton's good faith in signing the reform measure (which Dole says he authored), I also doubt the doomsayers who see the legislation as a frontal assault on the poor.

There will be some suffering, no doubt about it. Any legislation that assigns an end-point for government assistance will cause some suffering on the part of those who don't (or can't) take advantage of the interim. The sheriff's eviction team will leave some families homeless, even if they have known for a full year that eviction was coming. What we don't know is how many families will read the eviction notice and pay the rent, find a new place, take a new job or double up with friends.

Similarly, we don't know – because it is unknowable in advance – how many present welfare recipients will make serious new efforts toward self-sufficiency as a result of this legislation, or how many prospective recipients will look first to private sources of support, or how many people will, knowing that welfare might not be there for them, change the behavior that might land them in need.

You may not believe that old canard about women having babies in order to get a welfare check (or young girls having babies in order to gain emancipation from their families). But isn't it likely that some people at least will take greater care not to have more babies than they can care for if there is no assurance that welfare will take care of them? Isn't it likely that marriage might become a more attractive alternative for young women who know they will need help caring for their children? Isn't it likely that some women will be less likely to become sexually involved with men who are, by reason of idleness or attitude, ineligible as husbands? Isn't it likely that organized religion will take a larger role in providing help (economic as well as spiritual) for society's needy? And isn't it likely – or at least possible – that the legislation that strikes us as so punitive may help to restore the public dole to what most of us think it ought to be: emergency relief?

None of these outcomes will be universal, of course. Some people will, after their welfare eligibility expires, wind up homeless or worse, their job skills or mental condition being inadequate for gainful employment. But isn't that a problem that's easier to handle after you know the size of it?

Even on the technical side, the end-of-welfare legislation may be less Draconian than it at first appears. It has some interesting loopholes, including a provision that states that have received federal waivers to run experimental programs – currently 43 out of the 50 – may continue to run those program notwithstanding the new legislation. In addition, states may not lose as much welfare money as it appears because they will be free to shift federal money from other categories to pay welfare benefits or to provide for job subsidies or day care.

The overall effect of the new rules could be very bad, or neutral or even good – largely depending on whether the governors who run the state programs are bad, average or good.

I agree with those who think the present legislation goes too far, is based on too many shaky assumptions and will do harm. But more harm than the present welfare system?

What gets lost in our anguished argument is that welfare was broken and we couldn't figure out how, starting with the present system, to fix it.

Isn't it just possible that we might do a better job by tearing the whole thing down and rebuilding it from scratch?

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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