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Clinton Unveils Welfare Reform : Legislation: His $9.3-billion plan stresses work, imposing 2-year limit on benefits for younger recipients. Initiative seeks to curb teen-age pregnancy, illegitimacy.

June 15, 1994|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Decrying the "cycle of dependency" that keeps millions of Americans on welfare rolls for years, President Clinton on Tuesday unveiled a $9.3-billion reform initiative that would impose a two-year limit on cash benefits and require younger recipients to find work themselves or take a government job.

"We propose to offer people on welfare a simple contract," Clinton said during an address in the lobby of a Kansas City bank where Harry S. Truman once worked and where former welfare recipients have become productive wage earners.

"We will help you get the skills you need," Clinton said. "But after two years, anyone who can go to work must go to work, in the private sector, if possible, in a subsidized job, if necessary. But work is preferable to welfare and it must be enforced."

If his package is enacted, the President said, 1 million people who would otherwise be unemployed and receiving welfare benefits will hold jobs by the year 2000. That would represent roughly one of every five adults who now receive Aid to Families With Dependent Children. Clinton's plan applies only to AFDC and not to food stamps or other programs for the needy.

The initiative is designed to flesh out Clinton's campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it" by addressing some of the factors that tend to make public assistance more attractive than gainful employment to recipients, particularly single mothers. Welfare reform is considered a central element of Clinton's "new Democrat" agenda, which attempts to find common ground between traditional liberal and conservative approaches to social policy.

"Work," the President declared in the lobby of Commerce Bank here, "is the best social program our country has ever devised."

But White House officials acknowledged that the initiative probably will languish until the fate of Clinton's health care reform campaign is resolved. Moreover, concerns about the cost of the welfare package and the eventual scope of its public employment provisions could endanger passage in an era of tight budgets and public skepticism about big social programs.

The welfare initiative attempts to discourage long-term dependency by extending both a carrot and a stick: welfare recipients would be provided with additional education, training, job placement services and child care to help them become self-sufficient. But if they failed to play by the new rules, they could see their benefits reduced or cut off.

But in taking a "tough love" approach to dependency, Clinton's proposals must overcome a significant obstacle that has blocked past reform efforts: In most cases, it costs the government less money to simply send checks to unemployed welfare beneficiaries than to provide the kind of training, subsidies and public sector jobs needed to turn them into wage earners.

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Under the Clinton plan, public sector jobs would be provided to participants who hit the two-year limit without finding work in the private sector. Commerce Bank, for example, is active in a city program that trains and places Missouri welfare recipients in private jobs.

Clinton said that his plan makes it clear that both parents will be held responsible for the welfare of their children. It would emphasize establishment of paternity and crack down on fathers who fail to provide mandated child support. It includes measures to discourage teen-age pregnancy and illegitimacy, which Clinton says have contributed to welfare dependency.

"Children should not be born until parents are married and fully capable of taking care of them," the President said.

Most of the plan's provisions would apply only to adult recipients born after 1971, who represent the youngest one-third of the total adult AFDC population of 5 million. The age threshold is intended to reduce the total cost and lighten the administrative burden imposed on states, which would be required to create hundreds of thousands of education, training and subsidized work slots.

The President said that he would introduce his legislation in the next few days. It already faces competition from several congressional proposals that represent different visions of welfare reform. Liberals tend to oppose the proposed two-year limit as too severe, while conservatives argue that the Clinton plan does not do enough to discourage illegitimacy.

Members of Congress and welfare specialists differed sharply in their initial assessments of the President's plan.

"It's a step in the right direction," said Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.), chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and sponsor of a moderate welfare reform bill.

Clinton's plan, McCurdy said, shares core elements with both the moderate Democratic proposal and a leading Republican alternative. "It puts us all in the ballpark now," he said. "Our bill, the Republican bill and the Clinton bill are in a range now."

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