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After 60 Years, a Basic Shift in Philosophy

By Barbara Vobejda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 1 1996; Page A01

For 60 years, the nation's welfare system has been driven by a simple principle: If you are poor and eligible, you are guaranteed a check from the federal government.

Yesterday, when President Clinton pledged to sign the Republican welfare legislation moving through Congress, he assured an end to that guarantee and launched the most dramatic changes in the treatment of disadvantaged Americans since the New Deal.

The legislation represents a shifting philosophy, which no longer envisions welfare as "income maintenance" or simply a way to raise the living standards of the poor.

Instead, aid to disadvantaged families will be limited to five years and recipients will be required to work in exchange for those benefits.

"This is fundamental change," said Cornelius Hogan, Vermont's secretary of human services. "It's a fundamental change in the way we think about families and children."

Proponents of the legislation envision welfare offices as job-placement centers, where applicants are steered toward training and work rather than simply handed a check.

Rep. Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.), one of 37 House Democrats who urged Clinton in a letter this week to sign the bill, said welfare recipients will essentially sign a contract pledging to improve themselves. "Caseworkers will say, 'Here's what you have to do. This is not something we just give to you,' " he said.

And that, he said, means "we've moved to a new paradigm."

The legislation will create a fundamentally new framework for running welfare. The federal program of Aid to Families with Dependent Children will be eliminated and instead, states will receive annual federal payments and use them to run their own systems.

They can set tighter time limits, for example, and establish new requirements – denying aid to parents who fail to immunize their children or keep them in school, for example.

Clearly, it will be a much tougher system: Welfare recipients who refuse to work will lose benefits.

The same will be true of persons convicted of drug felonies and single mothers who refuse to help find the fathers of their babies.

Legal immigrants who are not citizens will no longer be eligible for food stamps and other types of assistance.

And childless adults will be eligible for food stamps for only three months in any three-year period.

If they get laid off from a job, they can get another three months.

Hogan praised new provisions to enhance child support enforcement and the emphasis on self-sufficiency. But, he said, reductions in food stamp spending are too high and when states hit the next big recession and find they have insufficient funds to expand their welfare rolls, "people are going to get hurt pretty badly."

Also, Hogan and many others, including the Congressional Budget Office, predict that only a handful of states will achieve the ambitious goals of moving half of their welfare recipients into the work force over the next six years.

Whether the welfare system as imagined by the bill's supporters will materialize is a matter of bitter debate.

Opponents predict dire consequences: families forced onto the streets and children hungry because of food stamp cuts.

Proponents describe a very different scenario, of dropping welfare caseloads and an end to long-term dependence that they believe has trapped generation after generation on welfare. They say $4 billion in new child care money will help millions of welfare mothers move into jobs.

Clinton seemed of both minds, saying he would send up new legislation to remove immigrant and food stamp provisions he viewed as too harsh.

The welfare debate that culminated with the president's announcement yesterday began even before his 1992 pledge to "end welfare as we know it."

Congress in 1988 passed the Family Support Act, which required states to move some welfare recipients into jobs.

"The welfare system, for its first 50 years, had the principal and almost sole goal of providing income maintenance for people in poverty," said Sidney Johnson, executive director of the American Public Welfare Association.

The change in thinking that began in 1988 racheted up significantly in the current welfare legislation.

Today, said Johnson, the goal is "promoting work and self-sufficiency and ending dependence."

This shift fits into a historical pattern of movement between two opposing philosophies, said Douglas Besharov, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

At one extreme is the notion that the poor are morally deficient and a welfare system should be designed as a "program of social control or social rectitude," he said.

At the other extreme is the belief that the poor are no different than other Americans, they simply lack money.

That attitude governed the nation's welfare programs during the 1960s and '70s. Even President Richard M. Nixon proposed a guaranteed income system to help the poorest Americans.

But before the '60s, welfare workers were seen as moral enforcers. They were expected to check up on recipients, drop by homes uninvited, for example, to determine if a man was living there in violation of regulations.

And now, said Besharov, "we're swinging back. We're saying we need more social control in the welfare system."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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