The welfare-reform package that eventually emerges from Congress may bear a wrapper marked New! Improved!
But the practical effect of the changes is likely to be less than the packagers had in mind.
Give them a "W" for wrestling with the problem. Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D-Calif.) and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) have tried mightily to deal with the key criticisms of the present welfare system: chiefly that it locks its intended beneficiaries into dependency, adding to the ranks of the despairing underclass.
The committees they head have searched for ways to transform welfare from a trap into a ladder. The House attempt would require most welfare recipients to work, if work is available, or else participate in education or job-training programs -- provided state-sponsored day care is available for their children up to age 14. It would also authorize up to $150 million to help states expand day care, but it would ban mandatory "workfare," in which welfare recipients would have to work off their grants in public-service jobs.
The Senate version would, as Moynihan describes it, "turn the present family welfare system on its head" by placing the primary responsibility for child support on the parents.
"Rather than beginning with a public assistance payment that is supplemented by sporadic child support payments and occasional earned income, the bill places responsibility for supporting children where it has always belonged: with parents. Both parents."
You have to like the sound of that. But how much practical difference is there between a welfare grant from which earnings and child-support payments are deducted and earnings and child-support payments supplemented by a welfare grant?
Indeed, if the earnings are zero and no child-support payments are made, the two systems would be fundamentally identical.
The Senate proposal would try to deal with that by requiring employers to withhold child-support payments from the paychecks of working parents, as a way of forcing (primarily) negligent fathers to help support their children. Such a scheme might work reasonably well in cases of divorce, or where paternity is clearly established, and the father is gainfully employed. At the very least, it would appear to be an improvement on court-ordered support that too often never materializes.
But how helpful would it be for the children of unwed mothers -- and especially teen-age mothers -- whose fathers might find it more convenient to deny paternity, if in fact they have any wages to attach?
The proposals come at the time of a broad consensus that there is something terribly wrong with the way welfare is administered. Liberals no less than conservatives acknowledge the need for a system based on strong work incentives -- not because they want to punish welfare recipients but because they understand the damage wrought by long-term dependency, particularly on children.
But neither the House nor the Senate committee could bring itself to propose straight-up workfare of the sort that says: Either you find a job or we'll find one for you, but you'll work for your check. Both recognized that adequately paid jobs frequently don't exist, and where they do, child-care facilities often are lacking.
What they have devised instead is a reform of intentions. The proposals intend to encourage work, intend to enforce parental child support, intend to move welfare recipients toward economic independence. Whether they will produce the results their sponsors have in mind is another question.
Even so, it must be said that the proposals do represent some improvement, however marginal, over the present system. In particular, I like the provision of the Senate version that would obligate working parents to support their children and require states to intensify their efforts to establish paternity in order to enforce that support. (States would have to keep records of the Social Security numbers of both parents at the birth of a child.)
I also like the provisions in both proposals that would pay for job training and education -- including full-time college in the House version -- for welfare recipients. But such provisions, which already exist in many states, seem unlikely to produce much movement from the welfare rolls.
In addition, both proposals would provide some transitional help for recipients trying to work their way toward independence -- for instance, by continuing eligibility for health insurance under Medicaid for up to nine months.
But these improvements, while significant, hardly add up to the thoroughgoing welfare reform the country seems to be ready for. The problem, I suspect, is that while everybody wants reform, nobody knows how to do it.