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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : David Ellwood : The Harvard Academic at the Center of Clinton's Welfare Reform Plan

July 24, 1994|Gayle Pollard Terry | Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer based in Washington for The Times. She interviewed the assistant secretary in his office at the Department of Health and Human Services. and

WASHINGTON — President Bill Clinton and just about everybody else in Washington want poor mothers to get off welfare, stop having babies and go to work. The agreement stops there. Republicans and Democrats fight each other and themselves over the best way to move people from welfare check to paycheck--but the fiercest battles will rage over who gets the credit.

David T. Ellwood, a leading architect of the Administration's ambitious remake of welfare, is in the eye of this partisan storm. His background--raised in Minneapolis, educated at Harvard, where he stayed on to become a professor and academic dean at the John F. Kennedy School of Government--signals liberal. But when he links welfare to work and responsibility, he sounds more like Ronald Reagan than Franklin D. Roosevelt, who created Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1935 to help keep widows and their children out of the poorhouse.

Ellwood's passion for welfare reform stems from an examination of teen-age unemployment he did in graduate school. He concluded that the problem was more than teen-agers without jobs--it included family structure and poverty. A labor economist by academic discipline, he's written much on the subject, including the highly respected, "Poor Support: Poverty in the American Family."

But in Washington, his theories are not academic. Officially, Ellwood is the assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services. He's better known, however, as one of the powerful triumvirate that runs the Administration's welfare-reform task force.

Optimistic, animated and riveting, Ellwood, 40, lives in a suburb of Washington with his wife, Marilyn, also an expert on social policy, and their two daughters, Maranda and Andrea. In spite of his proximity to power, or perhaps because of it, he has no political ambitions beyond encouraging Congress to pass welfare reform.

Will Ellwood's deadline on the dole become the law of the land? Only time--and politics--will tell.


Question: How did you get interested in welfare reform?

Answer: I grew up in a family where public service was a fundamental part of what we did . . . . I believe it's absolutely critical to be involved.

The problems that the country faces in terms of our children, and our future, are just terrifying. If we don't find a better way for our families than the current welfare system, we're going to lose not only a generation; we're going to lose our soul, our country. We've ultimately got to find a better way.

Q: Lose our soul?

A: We're sending the wrong messages to people about how to create a vital future and real hope. The welfare system doesn't reinforce the things that we all treasure. It doesn't help people help themselves. Instead, it stigmatizes and isolates. It doesn't reward work. It doesn't encourage responsibility. It has all the worst kind of messages. We've fundamentally got to find a way where we turn that around, and we start reinforcing work and responsibility and family and opportunity. That's what's this plan is ultimately all about.

Q: How do you change the expectations of a teen-age girl who grew up on welfare? Perhaps her mother was on welfare and her grandmother and even her great-grandmother?

A: You start by making very clear that this system is not about permanence. It's about a transition. It's about a future. But it's about a future where there is work and responsibility.

You find ways to send a signal that you shouldn't have children until you're in position to nurture and support those children. But if you do have a child, then you make very, very clear we're willing to help you.

But there are very serious responsibilities associated with that not only for you but for the father of that child as well. Both parents are going to know, if you are a teen-ager, you are going to stay in school. Both parents are going to be expected to provide support. And, ultimately, you are going to have to go to work.

Q: How do you send that message to a boy who doesn't know who his father is?

A: You start by trying to make sure that everyone knows that when a child is born, we will identify both the mother and the father at birth in the hospital. It is a message of hope. It is also a message of responsibility . . . .

For the boys, to the extent they have money, they are going to be expected to share it with their children. And, to the extent they don't, we have in the plan opportunities for both training and work for young men to help support their children.

Q: Are you the father of time limits?

A: . . . In some ways, the notion that welfare should be transitional is as old as recorded history.

The reason time limits are important is that we are in the wrong business. We have a welfare system that is basically in the check-writing business. The culture of welfare offices is entirely focused on getting people in, asking them lots of difficult, painful questions . . . then they write them out a check.

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