As we know it


Washington -- BEGIN BY recognizing that welfare is a federally sponsored euphemism; when we talk about helping the helpless, we're talking about charity.

Charity is not a dirty word, though it is treated as such by many of those on the receiving end; they prefer "welfare," because it implies an entitlement with no need for gratitude. On the contrary, the word "charity" -- the tangible expression of generosity toward our fellow humans -- rates right up there with love and kindness.

How do we maintain or increase the amount of charity given to the helpless while cutting out the charity that undermines the self-reliance of the able-bodied? Everyone agrees that the dependent are entitled to support, just as the lazy are not; the winnowing of the deserving poor from the undeserving underclass is called "welfare reform."

The Original Clinton came to town talking about ending "welfare as we know it," which appealed to conservatives; the New Clinton, a liberal aberration who lasted 24 months, never got around to it; but the New New Clinton (a keelhauled version of the Original Clinton) now addresses the issue with verve and discipline.

In contrast, Republicans are approaching the ending of W.A.W.K.I. in disarray. Not about freezing the level of federal funding and delegating its administration to the states, ending the era of ever-rising costs and individual entitlement; that bridge has been crossed.

The scrap within the Republican Party is about how the total is to be split among the states. In the GOP Senate bill, each state would get as much as it previously received from Washington. But that would reward New York and California and others historically openhanded; southern and western senators insist the distribution be based on local need, and argue that states are no longer required to spend their own funds to get federal charity dollars.

"If we get into a big formula fight," says Bob Dole on doles, "it's going to be very difficult to pass any welfare bill." Assuming regional compromise (setting the pattern for larger Medicaid block grants), Republican leaders will then have to roll over right-wingers who want to add conservative mandates -- like denying additional payments to unwed teen-agers accused of breeding for profit. That emotional grabber is undercut by Catholic bishops who fear the Draconian lesson would lead not to abstinence or marriage but to more abortions.

Republican wrangling gave the Great Facilitator his opening. As forecast in this space with inexplicable prescience, Bill Clinton has come out for state experiments leading to the privatization of welfare distribution.

For decades, the idea has been to get able-bodied welfare recipients into jobs; as President Richard Nixon put it, "off welfare into workfare." (I thought I coined workfare in 1969, but the civil rights leader Charles Evers had beaten us to it.) Job training programs haven't produced. The much-touted cutoff of benefits after two or five years may provide a needed incentive, but the wailing when it happens will be horrific.

Aptly choosing Independence Day for a speech about unwanted dependency, the president gave a waiver to Virginia to try its TTC own workfare plan: "Like the states of Oregon, Missouri and a few others, it also allows money now spent on welfare and food stamps to go to employers to supplement wages to help create jobs in the private sector."

In this way, states use federal welfare grants to make it profitable for private businesses to employ welfare recipients. No make-work; the temporary subsidy pushes the employer to hire and pulls the welfaree into an entry-level job.

But we can't expect a mother to report to work with a kid on each hip. "It is pure fantasy," Mr. Clinton said, "to believe we can put a welfare mother to work unless we provide child care."

Such job-tied baby-sitting makes economic sense to conservatives, drips with compassion to liberals and is nicely laced with local initiative and state control to federalists.

Perhaps it's too soon to put faith in the man from Hope's latest approach to charity. Federal domination by waiver is troubling. But if America's natural generosity must now be accompanied by a satisfying snarl, the tough-minded tender-heartedness of the privatization of welfare is worth a close look.

William Safire is a New York Times columnist.

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