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Welfare Fix Needs Some Fixing

Protest resignations should drive that point home for Clinton

September 13, 1996

President Clinton got another reminder this week that the new welfare law, for all its merits, has some big flaws: Two senior officials decided to quit rather than support the revision.

Mary Jo Bane, a Harvard expert, and Peter Edelman, a lawyer and longtime anti-poverty crusader, decided to leave their high-level posts at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in protest over a reform they believe will ultimately hurt poor children. A department analysis suggests that the new law will force more than 1 million more children into poverty.

Bane and Edelman both agreed that welfare policy needed to be changed, but they lost out in the internal debate among White House staffers over particulars of the controversial legislation, which Clinton signed last month. Bane would have been responsible for reviewing state welfare plans that will determine how the new law is implemented.

The nation's public assistance programs clearly needed reform to redirect a system that encouraged long-term dependency and irresponsibility. The debate in Washington centered on how to get poor parents off welfare and into jobs, an important goal for the well-being of their children and the country as a whole. The new law, in an effort to save money, also cuts the benefits of most legal immigrants, a dire hardship for California. Generally lost in the debate was the issue of what will happen to children if a parent loses benefits and then cannot or will not work.

Jobs, it's agreed, are the best antidote to welfare and poverty. Clinton, in a recent speech to the National Baptist Convention USA, challenged religious institutions to hire former welfare recipients. The president called on each church to hire one person and suggested that states subsidize the worker's pay.

Churches and charities performing that public service would receive a financial incentive only if a state decided to spend some of its welfare funds in that fashion. Of course, even if some states choose that sound approach, neither churches nor charities could provide the millions of jobs that will be needed by largely unskilled welfare recipients when they reach the new law's five-year limit.

The verdict is still out on the massive welfare reform law. Most provisions don't take effect until next year. But Bane and Edelman's legitimate concerns should put additional pressure on Clinton to fix the problems that he acknowledges make the new law far from what it should be.

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