Welfare Special Report
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It Won't Wash, Mr. President

Friday, August 23 1996; Page A20

"AFTER I sign my name to this bill, welfare will no longer be a political issue," President Clinton said yesterday. He wishes. It may not be the same kind of issue it otherwise would have been in the presidential campaign. The Republicans won't be able to say he broke the glib promise of four years ago to end welfare as we know it. They may not be able to use the issue against the Democrats generally in the same way as in the past. Thanks to his signature, "the two parties cannot attack each other over it," the president said.

But at what price? The basic question of society's obligation to the poor won't go away any more than will the poor themselves. The charge against the president is that he wittingly signed a bad bill for political reasons and in the process sacrificed the interests of some of the nation's poorest people, including poor children. Yesterday's signing ceremony was extraordinary in that much of it was given over to an implicit defense against that charge, conducted entirely in code, of course. "If it doesn't work now, it's everybody's fault," the president said at one point, spreading the possible blame. But in fact, though the Republicans wrote the bill, it will be mainly his fault. It was he who had the power to stop it.

The president said the bill "restores America's basic bargain of providing opportunity and demanding, in return, responsibility." He portrays it as a balanced bill, but in fact it is not. Welfare recipients will be required to work, but with no assurance that jobs will be available, nor affordable child care, nor that the jobs will be ones the recipients can reasonably be expected to do; the list goes on. More than an eighth of the children in the country are on the welfare rolls. You ask yourself, what happens to the children of those mothers whose benefits run out? "Now that we are saying with this bill [that] we expect work, we . . . all have a responsibility to make sure the jobs are there," the president said. But by the waving of what magic wand is that supposed to occur?

Mr. Clinton said this bill is better than the two he earlier vetoed. It is in some respects, but not all, and that's the wrong standard of judgment. A good welfare bill is one that provides recipients with enough support for them to make, successfully, the transition from welfare to work that is expected of them. Mr. Clinton sent up such a bill in 1994. That's the standard from which he now backs away.

In listing the virtues of the bill, he said the states will be required "to maintain their own spending on welfare reform," but in fact they will be permitted to spend much less. The governors insisted on the latitude. No other provision offers a better example of the break-up of the national program and shift of responsibility to the states that the bill would achieve. "The governors asked for this responsibility; now they've got to live up to it," the president said. He was exhorting them to do what they no longer must. How much real help is that?

The administration defends the welfare provisions of the bill. The defects are elsewhere, the president said again yesterday – in the deep cuts the bill also would make in food stamps and aid to legal immigrants. The administration promises to fix those. You wonder in which Congress that will be. The president now is able to present himself as a defender of the needy in that he instantly seeks to undo a part of what he has just done. He should have had the political courage to veto the bill. Then he wouldn't have had to spend the morning squirming in the Rose Garden to explain himself.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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