A new national welfare program, embracing long-needed reforms, is expected to be proposed this week by the National Governors' Assn.--an initiative that happily coincides with the new effort in Congress to rewrite welfare legislation.
Unlike the proposals of President Reagan, who would like to shift more of the burden to the states, the plan under consideration by the governors would maintain a central federal role, including increased federal funding at least for the first years of operations. T1751457904would place new emphasis on helping welfare recipients to the job market while assuring them a minimum standard of living.
The President has suggested cutting the states loose from some of the existing federal programs so that they can experiment with new approaches. That is a prescription for eroding strong federal support, without which no welfare program can succeed, while at the same time exacerbating the outrageous discrepancies that already exist among the benefits paid by the different states. Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, president of the National Governors' Assn., has correctly said that "we don't need more tests."
Reagan delights in telling visitors tales about welfare mothers driving elegant cars and living in hotels at the expense of taxpayers. There has indeed been cheating among those on welfare, although, measured in dollar terms, it is minuscule compared with the tax cheating that goes on in more affluent circles. Cheating is not the point. Desperation is. The fact is that most people on welfare don't want to be there. One in seven Americans now lives in poverty, and 40% of that population is made up of children.
There is no simple solution. And there is no cheap solution.
Jobs alone will not work. Most entry-level jobs will not support a family in which only one parent is working, yet thousands of welfare families are one-parent households. Furthermore, many jobs available to welfare recipients do not provide health insurance, confronting them with the choice of giving up the Medicaid health insurance that they have on welfare if they go to work. Welfare reform will go nowhere without health-care reform.
There is another problem with much of the welfare-reform talk. Most constructive reform proposals acknowledge that affordable child care is an absolute prerequisite if heads of one-parent households are to work. But there is a shocking shortage of affordable child care in the nation. Much of the affordable child care that does exist is indirectly subsidized by the intolerably low salaries paid to the professional staffs. Highly trained professionals are compensated at close to the minimum wage. That injustice already is taking a toll in the numbers entering training for this important work, and in the numbers willing to continue on the job. Until that inequity is corrected, both the quality and the availability of child care will be in jeopardy.
Among the most important reforms proposed will be a national minimum standard for benefits, requiring each state to support welfare families at a fixed percentage of that state's standard of living. Incredible and unjust variations exist among the states under existing law. Welfare payments in 32 states are less than 50% of the poverty level. When welfare and food-stamp benefits are combined, only one state--Alaska--equals or exceeds the poverty level, and three states pay combined benefits that are less than half the poverty income level.
Reform proposals also are expected to embrace new provisions for parental responsibility in broken families. Fathers will be held accountable to provide a fixed percentage of their income for child support. There is also recognition that substantial additional assistance will be required to assure families coming off the welfare rolls of a minimum standard of living during the transition.
Gov. Clinton has given the correct cast to the proposal, affirming that the object is to communicate to welfare recipients: "You can be somebody." That is a welcome departure from the punitive approach of many who have sought to depict the welfare population as lazy and resistant to work. It recognizes that the present law and the state of the economy have been the principal barriers to getting off welfare and onto a job.
Gramm-Rudman and all the horrors of deficit budgeting are being invoked in advance to say that the nation cannot afford what the governors will propose because the first-year price tag is $2 billion. That kind of bookkeeping is treacherous, for it merely postpones to future taxpayers the higher costs that could be avoided with judicious reform now. The plan of the governors is a prescription to spend less while buying a better quality of life for a neglected population group. That is why it is so attractive.