The President's Welfare Study

PROPERLY DONE, the welfare study the president called for in his State of the Union address could be an important exercise. Given the mood of the country and the strengths of the president, it is even possible to imagine it producing what people on more than one side of that well-worn subject would regard as acceptable reform. But to do that it would have to be a true and open inquiry, not an effort to reargue the past. Unfortunately, it appears to be starting out the wrong way.

The model might be, as in some ways it clearly was, the study on tax reform the president called for in his State of the Union address in 1984. Opponents accused him, no doubt accurately, of trying to put that difficult subject on the shelf until after the election, just as now he is accused of trying to demonstrate social concern even while sending Congress a budget full of social spending cuts. No matter. The tax reform study was authoritatively done in almost scholarly fashion by the best people in government. It became the standard of reference in a serious process which confounded skeptics by producing an impressive reform bill in the House last year and now appears likely to generate a bill in the Senate as well.

The welfare reform effort starts with a different tone. The judgment apparently has already been made that the government is spending not merely enough on welfare but far too much. Thus, a senior administration official noted at a briefing on the State of the Union address that "it has been reported to us, for example, that we're spending about $110 billion on low-income programs of one nature or another. If we gave everybody in the United States who was below the poverty line enough cash to bring them up over the poverty line, it would take only $60 billion. So, the question is, why are we spending the other $50 billion?"

A judgment has also apparently been made that no serious question exists about the capacity of the society to provide jobs for people on welfare, if they move off. The Pogo-esque result is that the program becomes the problem, on grounds that welfare vitiates the incentives to marry and work. "The irony is that misguided welfare programs instituted in the name of compassion have actually helped turn a shrinking problem into a national tragedy," the president said in his radio address a week ago.

But these are not settled issues -- far from it. Judgments have been made where only important questions exist -- or only questions should. The study is to be done, not outside the White House, but within it by the domestic policy council under the chairmanship of the attorney general. The Treasury study was distinguished by the fact that in the president's name it strayed from some traditional positions of his party -- on many business subsidies, for example. Will the welfare study have a similar breadth and detachment? Not to judge by the indications so far. But if it lacks these qualities it will be only clamor.