Sometimes, it is said, a cure is worse than a disease. The House of Representatives confirmed the truth of that aphorism recently when it voted 230-194 for a bill purported to bring ''welfare reform.'' The bill is a budget-buster, and it wouldn't reform much of anything.
Virtually no one wants to defend the present program. It's a mess. The key element is AFDC (Aid to Families With Dependent Children). Back in 1970, benefits amounted to $4.2 billion a year. In 1986 the cost was well over $15 billion. Seventeen years ago, 1.9 million families were on AFDC. The number now is 3.7 million. The system has fostered the wasting disease of dependency. To be on welfare has become a permanent way of life for many of our people.
Sponsors of the reform bill may be credited with the best intentions. Their basic idea is to require persons on welfare to undergo training that would qualify them for jobs in private employment. In the simplistic phrase, the sponsors would substitute workfare for welfare. The bill contains elaborate provisions for day-care centers; it contains a whole section titled ''incentives''; it would put teeth into efforts to collect child support payments; it would preserve Medicaid benefits for those who get off the welfare rolls. And over a five-year period, the bill would cost an additional $6 billion.
Viewed abstractly, these provisions have their attractive aspects. God knows the problem has appalling dimensions. Roughly 20 percent of all American children are poor; half of all black children and more than one-third of Hispanic children are living in poverty. One can challenge the statistical meaning of ''poor'' and ''poverty,'' but by any definition of the terms the situation is deplorable.
In some ways it is getting worse. The value of benefits under AFDC and food stamps has steadily eroded. In order to compete in the next century, we ought to be rearing a generation of well-educated children, and many poor children of single-parent families are dropping out. Teen-age pregnancies compound the problem. The young mothers go on welfare; they fail to complete the education that might qualify them for jobs, and the cycle of dependency begins anew.
The trouble is that the House bill, H.R. 1720, cannot be viewed as an abstract proposition. Its specific provisions contradict the avowed purposes. Somewhere between 70 percent and 80 percent of the cost would not be directed toward job training and education, but rather to an outright increase in benefits. Half a dozen provisions have the reverse effect of prolonging welfare dependency and restricting job opportunities.
By way of example, a state could not require participation in job training by any parent of a child less than 3 years old. No participant could be required to take a job at less than current pay scales for the position. At least the state or federal minimum wage would have to be paid. Under the Community Work Experience Program, recipients could not be assigned to jobs for more than six months.
If the House bill becomes law, many persons on welfare would find it to their advantage to stay there. Participants could not be forced to take a job that paid less than their present benefits under AFDC, food stamps and Medicaid. These benefits vary greatly state by state. In California the benefit package amounts to about $826 a month. As a consequence, a young mother on AFDC could not be required to take a job paying $4.50 an hour, even though work experience might lead to a better paying job.
The bill creates double standards. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that nearly 600,000 college students are working at part-time jobs to defray their expenses. Under this bill, a person on AFDC could stay on welfare and attend college full-time without having to work at all. Rep. Marge Roukema of New Jersey warns that this arrangement would create a de facto entitlement to higher education, ''a grave injustice to those who are presently working their way through college at great personal sacrifice.''
The object of true welfare reform is to balance benefits between too little and too much. There ought always to be an incentive to get off welfare and to get on a payroll. Unfortunately the House bill, by greatly increasing benefits, would diminish the incentives. I don't pretend to know what the answer is, but this bill isn't it.