As a young social worker seeking an advanced degree, Barbara A. Mikulski was told by her supervisor that she didn't have "a therapeutic personality."
Now, many years and much success later, the only social worker in the United States Senate is taking on the task of persuading her fellow Democrats that her brand of "tough love" is more effective than the party's traditional "therapeutic" approach to social problems. She's betting that it will be more popular with voters as well.
Nowhere is the difference between the two approaches more definitive than in welfare reform, and in the coming weeks, Senator Mikulski and some of her colleagues hope to make a mark on welfare legislation in the Senate.
That's a tall challenge in a Congress transformed by Republican momentum and ideas that threaten to make the Democratic version of "tough love" seem more than a day late and several dollars short.
Already, Senate Republicans have considered and passed through committee a welfare bill that somewhat modifies the drastic changes adopted by the House as part of the "Contract with America." But critics of the Republican approach maintain that getting mean is not the same as being effective.
"Welfare," the interconnected system of cash payments and food, medical, housing and other subsidies, is the economic underpinning of many impoverished neighborhoods. Taking that away will also hurt businesses that serve these areas, making it even more difficult for poor people to get a foothold in the economy.
Senator Mikulski, along with a group including Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., the minority leader, and Sen. John B. Breaux, D-La., plan to introduce welfare legislation sometime this week. Their version represents a third way, avoiding both punitive attempts at reform and proposals that really don't change the system at all. They think it has enough hard-headed realism to attract fellow Democrats and even some Republicans uncomfortable with their party's harsh proposals, justifiably derided by critics as "tough on kids and weak on work."
The Democrats' "tough love" bill will steer clear of the Republican plan for block grants to the states -- which will likely turn into another unfunded mandate for the states. It retains the notion of welfare as an entitlement, but it makes the entitlement conditional with a lifetime limit of five years.
Probably the most important change it proposes is one designed to shift the culture of welfare, beginning with the moment an applicant first encounters the system. Rather than focusing on the details of meeting eligibility requirements, case workers will be expected to be social workers. They'll stop asking, "What do you need from us?" Instead, their questions will be, "How do you plan to become self-sufficient?" And, "How can we help you do it?"
Underpinning this change are other provisions designed to support independence and family stability -- such as doing away with rules that drive fathers away and allowing welfare recipients who find jobs to keep medical coverage and other benefits through a transition period.
All in all, this is a daring proposal from Democrats, who, as Senator Mikulski points out, are more accustomed to wringing their hands than taking a tough-minded approach. In fact, this is the kind of daring approach we expected -- but didn't get -- when President Clinton promised to "end welfare as we know it."
It took the "Contract with America" to do that. But most Americans may not want to end welfare as the Republicans would do it -- when they see the burden that plan will put on state and local governments.
The Senate Democrats are setting out on a mission against long odds. They need to draw some Republican support and they face a tight deadline for making their case.
But it's a worthwhile mission. How a nation treats those on the margins of its society -- particularly young families that are poor and vulnerable -- is a significant measure of its character.
Clearly, it's time to stop trying to give government a "therapeutic personality." But tough love -- tough and fair -- deserves a chance.
Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.