WASHINGTON — President Reagan on Thursday signed the first major overhaul of the nation's welfare system since it was created in the Great Depression, and said the new law is a "message of hope" to those mired in a life of dependency and destitution.
But that message to welfare recipients, the President said, also contains a demand from the citizens who pay the bills: "That you will do your share in taking responsibility for your life and for the lives of the children you bring into this world."
Reagan said the best part of the new welfare plan is that it poses "an alternative to life on welfare."
"For too long the federal government, with the best of intentions, has usurped the responsibility that appropriately lies with parents," Reagan said at the signing ceremony. "In so doing, it has reinforced dependency and separated welfare recipients from the mainstream of society."
The legislation contains the most sweeping revision of the nation's principal welfare program--Aid to Families with Dependent Children--since it was created in 1935.
Under the agreement reached after two years of legislative struggle, the government has pledged to provide training and support systems to destitute parents if they take steps to become independent.
Each state must operate a Jobs Opportunities and Basic Skills (JOBS) program to educate, train and find employment for AFDC recipients. States will be able to receive $6.8 billion in federal matching funds over seven years to pay for employment and training activities.
Kevin Aslanian, spokesman for a coalition of 25 welfare rights groups, called the new policies "an assault against poor women who are trying to raise a child." He said mothers should not be forced out of their homes during "the most precious years" of childhood.
Under the bill, states are required for the first time to offer people on welfare a broad variety of education, training and work programs.
Mothers of young children are required to participate. They retain medical coverage for a year after they find a job, and they will be far more likely to get child support payments.
For the first time, the federal government will require all states to pay cash benefits to two-parent welfare families. Only 27 do so now.
Starting in 1994, one adult in each two-parent welfare household must participate in a job search and, if it fails, work 16 hours a week in a state-organized activity. A young parent may work toward a high school diploma.
Reagan refused to sign the bill without this key provision, commonly known as "workfare" but derided by some as "slavefare."
Non-custodial fathers will face new pressure for child support payments, with states required to identify more of them and withhold payments from their wages.