Struggling with strained budgets and frustrated by surging numbers of dependent poor, growing numbers of states are asking Washington to waive federal regulations so they may implement sweeping changes in their welfare systems.
Last month, New Jersey became the fifth state this year to receive such a waiver, which allows the state to undertake experimental reforms for the next five years, including denying further benefits to mothers who have more children while on welfare.
The state-by-state movement, which has spread like a brush fire from California to Maryland to New Jersey, has a common theme. Although individual program proposals differ, the states all seek to tie receipt of assistance to a change in behavior on the part of the poor.
With welfare reform likely to be a touchstone issue in the presidential campaign, the grass-roots effort is sparking a storm of debate over whether the changes are a new cure for welfare dependency -- or an old-fashioned, paternalistic nostrum.
"Waivers that seek to change poor people's behavior are dubious in both intent and outcome," said Jodie Levin-Epstein, an analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy.
"This is full-fledged reform," countered Jon Shure, a spokesman for Gov. James Florio of New Jersey, a Democrat. "This will break the cycle of dependency on welfare. We are saying you'll get some benefits, but you'll have to do something in return."
Federal waivers for changes in the welfare system are necessary because states, which implement their own programs, also rely on federal matching funds for the primary welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Five have been granted waivers this year, and another 10 are considering requesting them.
Administration officials are quick to point to President Bush as the engine behind the locomotive of welfare reform. In his State of the Union message, Mr. Bush said he welcomed state reform efforts and pledged swift action on waivers.
But in Washington policy circles, analysts say the state efforts are spurred more by concern over shrinking state dollars and a deep-seated frustration over how to get families off welfare. An estimated 13.7 million Americans now receive AFDC. In California, proposed changes could save the state an estimated $522 million.
These days, both Republicans and Democrats, and both state and federal officials, agree the federal welfare system does not work, and most of them agree that they don't know the answer. Instead, the debate is over whether even to have welfare -- and if so, how best to reform it.
The tenor of the debate has also radically changed. Instead of talking about aid to the poor, welfare specialists speak of "incentives" and "obligations." Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton proposes a two-year limit for welfare recipients; President Bush vows to "make the able-bodied work."
In Washington, specialists on both sides of the welfare debate are greeting the state reform movement with raised eyebrows. Some who think welfare should be abolished dismiss reform efforts by states as nibbling around the edges of the welfare problem.
Others contend that welfare should be maintained, but they worry that state reform plans smack of old-fashioned social engineering. No one knows, they argue, if the carrot-and-stick approach will work with the dependent poor.
"They are imposing someone else's standards and behavioral expectations on people," says Demetra Nightingale, a researcher the Urban Institute. "But there is no research that says this will work."
In fact, research by the Center for Law and Social Policy on many state welfare reform efforts is damning. A review of a Wisconsin Learnfare program -- which linked welfare to school attendance -- showed no impact on the number of teen-agers attending school between 1989 and 1991.
Under particular fire are efforts by states such as New Jersey and California to cap welfare benefits if a mother has another child. Critics say this program smacks of paternalism.
"The cap in family size is not a contraceptive device," said Ms. Levin-Epstein.
And changing behavior, welfare specialists argue, does not address the problem of how cycles of dependency are created. The true causes, they say, include the nation's deepening recession, the lack of jobs in new fields, and the existing cultural and racial barriers to work.
State and federal officials, however, counter by arguing that the reforms are experiments, not programs etched in stone. All five of the new state programs are established for five years or less, and must have rigorous evaluations at the end. Each state is maintaining a control group for comparison.
E9 Elizabeth Neuffer is a reporter for the Boston Globe.