Welfare reform again.


Talk about welfare reform has not changed much since 1988, when the Federal Family Support Act went into effect, and President Clinton's latest plan to "overhaul" the welfare system is more of the same.

For years now, there has been widespread agreement that the current welfare system does not work. To a surprising degree, those who have studied the problem concur about what has to change in order to make things better: Jobs, training, health care, child care, and transportation for the working poor would enable people to pull themselves out of the poverty trap.

As it stands, the welfare system penalizes the poor for working by cutting a dollar of benefits for every dollar they earn. Furthermore, welfare recipients lose their Medicaid when they take low-paying, service-sector jobs. Parents have the added problem of finding somewhere safe and affordable to put their children when they go to work - a daunting problem even for the middle class.

The Family Support Act recognized these problems, and proposed to deal with many of them by providing job training, transportation, child care, and a variety of experimental programs administered by state governments, designed to move people off welfare and into work. Now President Clinton, who helped draft the Family Support Act, is promising to "end welfare as we know it" through job training, child care, and a major initiative to move people into jobs.

Why do we keep seeing the same solutions repackaged in new welfare plans? And why haven't the old plans worked to solve widely recognized problems? The devil is in the details - more specifically, in the budget.

The Clinton "overhaul," like the welfare overhauls attempted under the Family Support Act in all fifty states, promises to pay for itself through savings from cuts to social-service programs. Simultaneously, it promises to expand job training, child-care, and other benefits for people on welfare as well as for the working poor.

Members of Congress are understandably skeptical about a major new program that claims to save money and solve major social problems, especially since the Clinton team has not revealed how much money is involved or where the savings will come from.

In fact, saving money on social services and fixing the welfare system are incompatible goals. Just look at what happened under the Family Support Act: State governments, strapped for funds, tried to purge their welfare rolls through programs that docked benefits when welfare...

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