Want welfare reform? What for? Seven easy fixes in the system we have


THE Clinton administration's agenda is so filled with issues that it would probably welcome a chance to put one or two of them aside.

So here is an issue that could easily be taken off the top of the list: welfare reform.

President Clinton has formed a 22-member task force to develop a comprehensive new welfare plan.

But the complicated, drawn-out process will inevitably provoke an acrimonious national debate. Instead, we should proceed by increments.

Let's start by following Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's suggestion to fix the Family Support Act, which set up the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training program.

(The act was passed in 1988 with great fanfare and with the active leadership of Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas.)

Every state now has a JOBS program to provide job placement, training and education for welfare recipients and day care for their children.

The program is based on the concept of mutual obligation: Recipients are required to take part, and the states are required to provide the services that allow them to.

The law is a good one. The key is carrying it out. Too often we spend so much time and effort making new laws that we often don't have the energy to follow them through, and that has been the case here.

So far, the states are carrying out the letter of the law but not the spirit, which is to change the whole idea of welfare to stress work and self-support.

If that is to happen, state and local welfare agencies need to get the message. And they need the resources to hire enough talented, committed managers and caseworkers to make sure that welfare recipients get the message too.

Rigorous research shows that the new approach works. It raises earnings and cuts welfare dependency for women who participate compared to those who don't.

So rather than try to replace the Family Support Act, the goal should be to strengthen it.

Here are some ways to make that happen:

* Raise the federal matching rate for the states under the JOBS program to 80 percent; it is now 60 percent for most states.

* Remove the federal spending limit on the program -- right now $1 billion a year. If that cap were removed, the states could do a lot more, and with a federal matching rate of 80 percent, they would have to pay only 20 percent of the cost.

* Double the national appropriation for staffing and administering the program in the field.

* Reduce the 20-hour-a-week participation requirement, which makes the program too rigid. It should be kept, but at 16 hours.

Over time, phase in a national minimum benefit for families on welfare, initially at the median welfare benefit level. This would reduce the large disparities in benefits among the states -- from $633 a month for a family of three in California to $120 in Mississippi.

* Authorize demonstrations of alternatives to welfare, especially

for teen-age mothers and absent fathers. Before young women are trapped in a welfare culture, they should be required to take jobs, in community service if necessary, within a year of leaving high school.

* Create special institutes to train welfare case managers to help young women stay in school and avoid unwanted pregnancies.

These seven steps would profoundly change welfare, particularly when combined with the increased earned-income tax credit and with a national health program that doesn't discourage people from leaving welfare for fear of losing their Medicaid benefits.

Their cost would be manageable: about $1 billion a year extra at the outset under the JOBS program.

And they can be done without a wrenching national debate at a time of mean-spirited attitudes on social issues.

Richard P. Nathan, director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, is author of "Turning Promises Into Performance: The Management Challenge of Implementing Workfare."

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